Israel Poised to Attack Iranian Nuclear Sites

The New York Times reported last week that Israel carried out a major military exercise in early June that appears to be a rehearsal “…to develop the military’s capacity to carry out long-range strikes and to demonstrate the seriousness with which Israel views Iran’s nuclear program.”  More than 100 Israeli warplanes — including F-16 and F-15 fighters, refueling tankers and helicopters for pilot rescue – participated in the maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean.

The message of the exercise, concludes the Times, was that Israel is prepared to act militarily if diplomatic efforts fail to stop Iran’s nuclear program.  Such an attack would certainly destroy most of the above-ground Iranian nuclear facilities and set back Iran’s nuclear program a few years.  But the Iranian response to such an attack would be serious for Israel and potentially worse for the United States.  

The latest edition of the German news weekly Der Spiegel echoes the Times’ view that Israel is making final preparations to strike Iran and concludes that there is “…a broad consensus (in Israel) in favor of a military strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.”

Der Spiegel says Israel’s main proponent for military action is transport minister (and former defense minister) Shaul Mofaz, who says action against Iran, is “unavoidable.”  Iran “…would disappear before Israel does,” said Mofaz in response to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenejad’s incendiary threats to “wipe Israel off the map.” “If Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it.  The sanctions are ineffective,” said Mofaz.

The German magazine concludes, “In Israel, it is no longer a matter of whether there will be a military strike, but when.”  Der Spiegel states that “…time is running out” because “Israel can only depend on American support for as long as … President George W. Bush is still in charge in Washington.”

Tehran sees nuclear weapons as an “…insurance policy for the regime,” explained Efraim Inbar, the director for Israel’s Center for Strategic Studies, because “…it’s more difficult to destabilize a country armed with nuclear weapons” and besides the mullahs believe nuclear weapons are the key to influence over the region’s oil reserves and will deter “an American invasion.”  

Nuclear arms will also compel Iran’s neighbors to redraw alliances so as to favor Tehran and Inbar believes a Persian nuclear umbrella will “…strengthen all its regional radical allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine….”  

The most predictable piece of this puzzle is the military operation.  An excellent analysis of how Israel might destroy Iranian nuclear sites was published in 2006 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program, “Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities.”  The study looks back at the 1981 Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear program and applies those lessons to the likely result of a raid against Iranian facilities.

The study details the Israeli decision process that led up to the June 1981 attack which destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor.  In October 1980, the Mossad intelligence service told Prime Minister Menachem Begin that the reactor would be fueled and operational by June 1981.  Apparently, that became Israel’s red line and motivated Begin to order the strike.  The study doesn’t suggest a comparable red line for the Iranian situation, however.

The Iraq raid seemed almost flawless. “A sixteen-plane strike package launched from Etzion airbase in the Sinai. The flight profile was low altitude, across the Gulf of Aqaba, southern Jordan and then across northern Saudi Arabia. Two F-15s remained circling over Saudi Arabia as a communications link back to Israel,” states the report.  Eight of the sixteen bombs released by Israeli fighters struck the Osirak containment dome and the target was destroyed.  All aircraft returned home.

The report suggests the Iranians, learning from the Osirak raid, have carefully concealed their nuclear facilities and spread them throughout the country.  

The study narrows Israel’s Iranian targets to three critical nodes: Esfahan, with its conversion facility, the Natanz enrichment facility and the heavy water plant and future plutonium production reactors at Arak.  All three could provide Iran with fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The study further analyzes munitions for each target set.  Israel possesses an array of laser guided bombs with Global Positioning System devices that are bunker busters which can penetrate deep through concrete and earth.  The authors recommend the number and sizes of Israeli bombs required to destroy each target set and describe the expected effects.

Israel’s deep strike capability has improved since the 1981 Osirak operation, states the report.  Tel Aviv has the F-15I Ra’am and F-16I Soufa, which are configured for deep strike missions.  They are equipped with conformal fuel tanks and can carry external drop tanks which extend their combat range to more than 1,300 miles while carrying four 2000-pound bombs.  Additionally, the bombers are protected by F-15Is which have a sophisticated electronic warfare and countermeasures system and an array of air-to-air combat weapons.

The authors believe Israel would conduct the mission using 25 F-15Is and 25 F-16Is and should anticipate a 40 percent (10 aircraft) loss to Iranian air defense.  However, the study concludes that Israel does possess “…the capability to destroy even well-hardened targets in Iran with some degree of confidence. The operation appears to be no more risky than the earlier attack on Osirak….”  

The consequences of such an operation are less predictable than the results of a military raid, however.  Middle East expert and former CIA agent Bruce Riedel says an Israeli strike would lead to Iranian retaliation directed “at both Israel and the US.”  The consequences would be fatal, says Riedel.  “We will see a Middle East in flames.”

Likely, Iran would respond by unleashing its proxy terror group Hizballah to attack Israel with rockets much as it did in 2006.  It might launch its Al Quds (Jerusalem) Force against American forces in Iraq and could use long-range missiles against American bases in Amman, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq.  Iran may even use its Hezbollah cells in the Americas and elsewhere to target American and Israeli sites.

The price of oil will certainly  spike because Iran would seek to shutdown the Straits of Hormuz, the 12-mile wide mouth of the Persian Gulf through which most of the region’s fuel passes.

If the attack occurs prior to the US presidential election, Senator Barack Obama could benefit from a voter backlash because the public would likely surmise that Israel would not have launched without the tacit approval of the Bush administration.  

In the end, the US would be left to clean-up after the shooting stops.  That would require more forces in the Persian Gulf region to contain Tehran and a task force off the Lebanese coast to support the likely Israeli war with Hizballah.

This is the situation America’s new president might inherit should Israel launch an attack this fall.  Iran’s nuclear program will be set-back a few years but Tehran will be re-energized to quickly rebuild its destroyed facilities.  The Mideast will be on edge more than it is now and America’s regional footprint will grow.   What’s less clear are the global ramifications of rising fuel costs and what other regional powers like Pakistan and global powers like Russia and China might do to further destabilize the crisis.