An Israeli Assault on Iran: The Options
Following a study on US-Israel understandings regarding Iran, the
Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) says that the chances the US
will attack Iran's nuclear program are high.
What exactly do these understandings say about Israel's alleged nuclear
Amir Rapaport 1/7/2012
The Iranian nuclear project is one of the main issues in the strategic
dialogue between Jerusalem and Washington, which, according to US Ambassador
to Israel, Dan Shapiro, has become "more coordinated than ever." This
dialogue, which began in the early 1990s, focuses on intelligence and
political affairs. In the field of intelligence, senior members of Israel's
security branches (the IDF, Directorate of Military Intelligence, and
Mossad) meet regularly with their US counterparts for exchanges and updates.
Diplomats, military personnel, intelligence officers, and foreign affairs
specialists attend the quarterly Joint Politico-Military Forum (JPMG) to
share ideas on various aspects of Iran's nuclear program. These types of
strategic forums help to tighten intelligence cooperation and establish a
base for joint policy. At the political level, the talks seem to be aimed at
hammering out a strategic response in accordance with the parties'
intentions and capabilities. This dialogue, which takes place at the highest
level of leadership between senior advisors, allegedly discusses the
possibility of attacking Iran's nuclear sites and determines the red lines
that could trigger a military operation.
Timetable for the Iranian bomb
US and Israeli intelligence services nearly agree on the timetable for an
Iranian bomb. According to the Israeli estimate, Iran is one year away from
a bomb, and according to US estimates, Iran is a year and a half away from
producing the necessary material for a nuclear warhead. The global debate
over Iran revolves around the question of when to intervene. Israel believes
that Iran intends to produce up to 250 kg of 20% enriched uranium – the
amount needed for one bomb.
The Islamic regime currently has 120 kg of 20% enriched uranium. The shift
from 20% enrichment to the 90% level required to produce a bomb is only a
matter of time, not of knowledge and technology. The rate of enrichment at
the 20% level is 10-20 kg a month. With Iran's ten thousand centrifuges,
only two to three months are necessary to upgrade the enrichment level to
According to assessments regarding Iran’s strategy, the Iranians could
produce enough 20% enriched uranium for one or more bombs, halt production,
and become a “threshold state” on the verge of military nuclear capability.
The short transition to upgraded (90% enriched) uranium could be made
whenever it suits them – secretly and rapidly – to stymie efforts at
thwarting their nuclear program. The Israeli position, as its leaders have
stated, is that Iran must be stopped before it reaches the threshold level,
since afterwards, it will only take a few weeks to produce a bomb. An
additional reason is that Iran could conceal the accelerated upgrading to
90% from UN monitors.
The US holds the position that their military capabilities (including
strategic bombers and deadly bombs) are more powerful than Israel's. They
say that even if Iran reaches threshold status, Israel can trust the US to
intercede. Obama explicitly stated this in his March 2012 speech when he
said, "You can trust us. We're committed to preventing the Iranians from
crossing the threshold and producing a bomb." But can Israel rely on the US?
In short, this is the dilemma facing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu,
Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya'alon,
and the rest of Israel's Political-Security Cabinet. These are the people
that will ultimately decide whether to attack Iran.
Options regarding a nuclear Iran
The US-Israeli discourse has given birth to diverse opinions on the nuclear
issue that could affect relations between Jerusalem and Washington. A
political simulation game (Iran: A Strategic Simulation) held at the
Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv in January 2012 found
that an independent Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would damage
Israel's relations with the US.
Given this potential response, it is important to understand the leeway for
response present in the dialogue between both countries. This is where the
following initiatory response possibilities may be pointed out:
Diplomacy and Sanctions: The EU's decision to cut off oil trade with Iran is
a powerful expression of US policy. A key factor in the Iranian economy, oil
sanctions could effectively pressure Tehran to abandon its nuclear plans.
However, the problem with such a move is that it demands a broad
multi-national consensus that the US – the leader of anti-Iranian policy –
could find hard to muster. China and Russia, who are permanent members of
the UN Security Council, oppose the crippling sanctions against Iran.
Moreover, the European Union agreed to comply with US-led sanctions only
after considerable hesitation and dissension. The difficulty in defining and
agreeing on tough sanctions causes Israel to regard this move with suspicion
and apprehension. Minister of Defense Ehud Barak declared, "If the sanctions
fail to halt Iran's nuclear program, action will have to be taken."
Semi-Military Move: The US decision to dispatch an aircraft carrier to the
Strait of Hormuz, despite Iran’s threat to blockade the strait if sanctions
are enforced, is an example of a semi-military response. This move is
designed to reinforce US policy that holds that the closure of the strait is
crossing a red line that Washington will not tolerate. The use of military
power as a deterrent is effective in that it also strengthens the deterring
force's credibility. The downside of such a step is that the situation could
deteriorate and develop into a military confrontation that the US wants to
avoid. If Washington backed down, its threats would prove to be merely the
roar of a paper tiger.
Thus, Iran's policy of brinkmanship, such as deploying naval vessels or even
firing on US or Western forces, could weaken Washington's credibility
regarding its intention to guarantee freedom of passage through the strait.
A military attack: Israel's position, the US's position
The big question is whether Israel will attack Iran. The simulation research
examined this issue from various angles (Israel's capabilities, flight
paths, chances of success, etc.) and drew the conclusion that such an
operation would run counter to US policy, and if realized, would have a
devastating impact on countries involved.
At the same time, senior US officials, such as Secretary of Defense Leon
Panetta, believe that Israel will attack Iran's nuclear installations in
2012. While these officials are quick to point out that this is their
personal assessment, their opinion nevertheless strengthens the credibility
of Israel’s threat. Announcing Israel's intentions to bomb Iran could exert
pressure on the international community to implement a more rigorous policy
against Iran. In other words, the community's interest in averting a
military action could mobilize joint international action to enforce harsher
sanctions that might postpone, or even cancel, an unwanted Israeli move. US
recognition of Israel's intentions proves that the threat is a key element
in the dialogue between the two countries.
However, there is a gap between American and Israeli perspectives concerning
the use of force for attaining common political goals, along with Israel's
implementation of this threat. In view of all the ramifications and
variables, how would a military attack impact US interests in the Middle
East, Israel's security interests, and bilateral relations? Indeed, this is
a very complex, multifaceted issue.
It may be assumed that most of the statements emanating from the two parties
are closely coordinated, but the statements also reflect a basic
discrepancy. This is at least, how they appear.
The options and likelihood of realization
If the sanctions and a semi-military move prove futile, the question of
whether or not to carry out a military strike will rise to the top of the
agenda. According to most Western assessments, a military operation will not
destroy Iran's nuclear program – it will only delay it. In the best-case
scenario, if the attack is executed perfectly, Iran’s program will be set
back no more than five years. However, considering that its nuclear
facilities are dispersed throughout the country (1,648,000 square km), most
analysts believe that a military attack would postpone Iran's attainment of
nuclear capability by two to three years at most, and even this is
uncertain. The targets of the attack would include the enrichment
facilities, the production sites of the detonators that trigger the nuclear
chain reaction, and surface-to-surface missiles that deliver the bombs or
warheads. According to foreign reports, a number of attacks (mysterious
explosions around the country) were carried out between 2008 and 2012
against targets linked to Iran's nuclear project. Several Iranian nuclear
scientists were assassinated in operations attributed to Western
intelligence agencies and the Mossad. There was also the case of an
anonymous cyber-attack by the Stuxnet worm (allegedly produced by Israel)
which caused heavy damage to Iran's centrifuges, which have since been
repaired. What options do Israel and the West have in the spring of 2012 as
Iran approaches the nuclear threshold?
1. Israel could execute a military attack without informing the US. Reasons
in favor: According to assessments in foreign publications, Israel has the
capabilities (air and ground weapons, an elite air force, air refueling,
long-range communications, and real-time intelligence gathering) to hit key
targets in Iran. Israel also has the reputation of a country that boldly
assumes responsibility for its own fate in matters of survival, as it did in
the bombing of the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981. In addition, Netanyahu
and Barak are believed to be preparing Israel for an attack and have the
clout to get the Political-Security Cabinet to approve. Reasons against: An
attack will cause only limited damage and incur heavy retaliation from Iran
and its allies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon. If the attack is implemented
without American consent, and US forces in the Persian Gulf are targeted by
Iran, then US-Israel relations could be severely damaged. Likelihood of this
scenario: medium to high.
2. Israel attacks Iran only after informing and coordinating with the US.
Reasons in favor: Israel prefers to coordinate every operation with the US
in order to preserve its strategic relationship. Reasons against: Full
coordination will make the US an accomplice, and it is unlikely that the US
wants this responsibility. Likelihood of this scenario: low.
3. Israel foregoes an attack and accepts the fact that Iran possesses a
bomb. Reasons in favor: For decades, the US and Russia waged a cold war.
Israel is aware of its military limitations and fears a strategic reversal
in its relationship with the US. Therefore, Israel could eventually decide
to accept the notion of a nuclear Iran and forego an attack, even while
knowing that the US will not attack in its place. Reasons against:
Theoretically, mutual deterrence doesn’t hold in Iran’s case given the
regime's messianic ideology. From Israel's point of view, a situation in
which Iran unabashedly proclaims its intention to destroy Israel, and at the
same time possesses a nuclear warhead, is as bad as the price Israel would
incur by attacking. An Iranian bomb will immediately limit Israel's ability
to retaliate against parties linked to Iran, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon
and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. Likelihood of this
4. The demilitarization of the Middle East, including Israel. Reasons in
favor: A scenario in which Israel agrees to be supervised by international
forces in exchange for Iran relinquishing its nuclear project could
neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat without needing to pay a high price.
Reasons against: It is unrealistic to expect that Israel and Iran would
place their trust in bilateral demilitarization or that Israel would reverse
its policy of nuclear ambiguity. Likelihood of the scenario: low
5. A US attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Reasons in favor: The US is
interested in stopping a nuclear bomb that threatens its allies, including
Israel and countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (the world's leading
oil suppliers). An Iranian bomb will motivate other Arab countries to attain
nuclear capability. In addition, Minister of Strategic Affairs, Moshe
Ya'alon, revealed that Iran is striving to obtain missiles with ranges of
10,000 km that could reach the US. The US has demonstrated that when its
security and political interests are threatened, it doesn't hesitate to
engage militarily anywhere in the world. Therefore, if sanctions against the
regime prove ineffective, the US might declare war on Iran or carry out a
strategic attack. Reasons against: In 2012, the US is in the midst of a
campaign in Afghanistan and still nursing its wounds from the war in Iraq.
America's economic weakness and domestic politics (2012 is an election year,
and several months will pass afterwards until a new administration settles
in) could prevent an attack on Iran. Likelihood of such a scenario: high.