The fact that Israel is holding training sessions seen as practical preparations for striking Iran’s nuclear sites is no secret. Anyone following the intensive drills held by the Air Force in the Mediterranean and in distant regions, ranging from Romania to Sardinia, realizes that Netanyahu’s and Barak’s declarations that Israel will not tolerate nuclear arms in Iranian hands is backed up by practical capabilities developed by the Air Force and by our military industries.
Based on the raging public discourse in recent days, we can estimate that a military option is available.
Pros and Cons:
No less importantly, the international community and the Iranians fully realize that Israel’s top politicians are seriously considering such strike in order to curb or at least delay the Iranian race to the bomb. This is assuming there is no non-military, efficient option to secure this aim. Meanwhile, the former IDF chief of staff, Mossad director and Shin Bet head, as well as the current ones, and some of our top ministers are also not rejecting the possibility of a strike out of hand.
However, the above is contingent upon absolute certainty that Iran has already started to produce the bomb and that all other ways to prevent Tehran from doing so have been exhausted. In such case, and only in such case, Israel would have no choice but to thwart the existential threat we face as result of nuclear arms in Iranian hands, even at the price of the casualties and damage to be sustained by Israel as result of Iran’s response (and that of its allies – Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups in Gaza.)
However, the above scenario is still relatively far off, as according to all estimates the Iranians are not expected to complete their preparations to produce nuclear weapons before 2015.
Until that time, harsh global sanctions could force the Iranian leadership to accept a deal with the West that would delay the military nuclear program. Other possible scenarios include an Iranian revolution that would disrupt the Ayatollahs’ plans, or an American and allied decision to curb Iran’s nuclear program by force in order to avert Mideastern instability. Under such circumstances, Israel would be able to join a coalition that strikes Iran without being isolated internationally. According to strike objectors in Israel, we must not attack on our own.
However, Netanyahu and Barak believe that we must not wait until it’s too late. At this time already, according to the British Guardian, the Iranians are vigorously building deep underground bunkers and long cement tunnels. These shelters are gradually becoming home to new uranium enrichment facilities, nuclear labs, and ballistic missiles.
Barak and Netanyahu argue that the Iranian response would not be as terrible as predicted and that Iran would settle for a measured response to a strike – either because Hezbollah and Hamas won’t rush to comply with Tehran’s wishes or because the Ayatollahs would fear a wide-scale confrontation that would inflict greater damage and destruction, including on Iranian oil fields.
At this time, there is apparently no decision on a strike yet. The reason for this is not only the resistance of ministers and senior IDF and intelligence officials, but also America’s objection. Washington fears that Iran’s response to an Israeli strike would harm US allies in the Persian Gulf and destabilize them. Oil production and transport could also be disrupted. Another possibility would see Iran’s terror emissaries targeting US citizens and troops in the Middle East and beyond. Hence, the Bush Administration, as does Obama, objected to an independent Israeli operation in Iran.
The Americans are also concerned that Israel is about to embark on an operation without coordination with Washington. “Nobody would believe that you operated without coordinating it with the US, and hence, as we too would sustain damages, we demand at least an advance warning,” said a senior American official who recently visited Israel.
The new American Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, apparently felt that something is brewing in Netanyahu’s and Barak’s kitchen vis-à-vis Iran and came to Israel a few weeks ago in order to avert a move that contradicts US interests. He also spoke publicly and said that decisions on the Iranian front must be taken in cooperation and coordination between Jerusalem and Washington.
While Army Chief Benny Gantz is believed to endorse the view that an Israeli strike should be taken in coordination – and if possible in conjunction – with the US, some political leaders hold different views. They believe that Israel should not coordinate such strike with the Americans so that the Arabs and Muslims won’t blame Washington for cooperating with Israel in striking a Muslim state. These politicians believe that the Americans would secretly thank us if we make do with a brief warning shortly before a strike is carried out. On this front too, no decision has been taken yet in Israel.
The lively public debate on the issue grants more credibility to the Israeli strike threat. It illustrates to the world that Israeli officials are well aware of the difficulties inherent in an Iran strike and of the heavy price that the Ayatollahs’ response would exact from Israel, regional countries and the international community. However, the heavy price and even the objection to a strike among top security officials do not deter our top decision-makers, Netanyahu and Barak.
The objection to a strike is in itself also an important signal to Washington, Moscow and Beijing – either you stop the Iranian race to the bomb through truly painful sanctions on Iran but with minimum damage for us and for you, or we shall be forced to act, and then all of us shall pay a heavy price.
This signal is important because the West intends to soon utilize a series of drastic pressure levers against Iran. The first one is full publication of the grave findings gathered by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The report has been available for a while now but has been shelved for political reasons.
Iran is aware of its existence and fears it because it paves the wave for greater pressure: A Security Council decision to impose yet another package of sanctions that would deliver a grave blow to the Iranian economy. This would entail boycotting Iran’s central bank and imposing an embargo on the importation and exportation of oil products.
The effect of such sanctions could directly threaten the regime’s survival, hence prompting Iran – with China’s and Russia’s help – to undertake an immense diplomatic effort to prevent the IAEA report’s publication. Should it be published, Iran wants Russia and China to use their veto power to avert dramatic sanctions.
The public debate that erupted in Israel, just like the publication of the Air Force drill in Italy, remind the US, Russia and China that should effective sanctions not be imposed, the world may have to deal with the graver implications of an Israeli strike.
Another strategic Israeli target is to make it clear to Iran’s leadership, and mostly to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, how substantial the threat of attack is. It is unlikely that Iran would abandon its nuclear program for fear of an Israeli strike, yet this fear will prompt Iranian efforts to hide the sites and missiles related to the military program and fortify them. These efforts require time and resources and therefore would almost certainly slow down the pace of Iran’s nuclear work and bomb’s development.
On Tuesday, the British Guardian also reported that the Royal Air Force is preparing to strike in Iran within a year. The reason given is that should the Brits fail to strike soon, they would not be able to do so at all – the Iranians would be hiding their facilities deep underground, protecting them against the largest bunker-buster bombs in Britain’s arsenal. This reasoning sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We can assume this is also related to Defense Minister Barak’s recent trip to London and the secret trip to Israel by Britain’s army chief. As the old saying goes, “Great minds think alike.”