All the auguries are pointing in the same direction: an Israeli air strike on Iran is coming. As suggested in two strategically placed recent articles, one in The New York Times and the other in The Washington Post, time is running out for a peaceful solution to this crisis. Tel Aviv’s “red line” is the point at which Iran’s protective measures will make it impossible for Israel to inflict serious damage on that country’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. Even if the Obama Administration is correct in claiming that Iran is several years away from acquiring the fissile material and components to construct a nuclear weapon, this may be irrelevant. Iran will have all the time in the world. Once Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is rendered bomb proof then the world’s only recourse will be sanctions. However, the lesson of a decade of sanctions on Iraq following Desert Storm is that they alone cannot stop a totalitarian government from pursuing even the most self-destructive policies.
There is very little chance that an Israeli attack would be able to thoroughly destroy the Iranian nuclear complex. The combination of operational factors, the character of the target set and Iranian passive and active defenses all suggest that the best the Israeli Air Force could do is delay the Iranian program. Even the United States with its force of B-2 bombers, inventory of massive bunker busters, arsenal of sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and F-22 stealth fighters would find the task challenging.
However, Israel’s goals in any strike on Iran may well be very different than those it had when it attacked the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1982 or wiped out the alleged Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. Even a relatively unsuccessful strike will alter the strategic environment in the region. Having crossed one red line, where might Israel draw the next one? Iran, the states in the region and the West would have to consider the possibility that Israel, having failed in its use of conventional force to halt the Iranian nuclear threat, might be willing to escalate further should Teheran actually proceed with building a nuclear weapon. In effect, an Israeli attack would constitute an extreme form of deterrence signaling.
An Israeli strike also would create an enormous political problem for the regime in Teheran. If successful in the sense of being able to penetrate Iranian airspace and deliver ordinance on target, the Israeli attack would demonstrate that the government could not defend the country. Iran could be expected to unleash its surrogates — Hezbollah and Hamas — against Israel. However, if there were ever a time for Israel to take on these terrorist organizations it might be while Egypt and Syria are beset by domestic problems. Israel would have to conduct major ground offensives into Gaza and Southern Lebanon to deal with the rocket threat. Without the threat those rockets pose to Israel, Teheran would have even less leverage should Israel decide to strike Iran again.
In addition, could Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad afford to appear passive in the face of a direct attack on their homeland? Such a stance might well undermine the regime’s domestic credibility. But how and against whom would Iran act in response to the Israeli attack? The most obvious and enticing target is the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. But this would mean taking on the United States. Given that the Iranian leadership would naturally assume that Washington was complicit in Israel’s attack, the temptation to strike out against the “Great Satan” could prove irresistible even if the consequences would be catastrophic for Iran. Either way, retaliating or not, Teheran would have a serious problem.
Israel may have one reason to delay action and it is not the hope that economic sanctions might bring Iran to heel. Israel has been working diligently on developing and deploying a sophisticated layered missile defense system. It has deployed a combination of Arrow 1 and 2 batteries and Patriot missiles against the longer-range threats such as Iranian medium-range ballistic missiles and is now deploying the Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems to deal with shorter-range rockets and missiles. In cooperation with the United States, Israel is developing a long-range, high altitude interceptor, the Arrow 3, specifically intended to go after Iranian ballistic missiles. The Israeli government may want to wait until it has more defensive capability in place before striking.
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