Thursday, April 26, 2012

Can Israel attack Iran anytime soon?

Rumours of an Israeli attack on Iran continue to make headlines, and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu persists in adding more fuel to the fire, stating in his Holocaust Memorial Day address that: “Today, the regime in Iran openly calls and determinedly works for our destruction. And it is feverishly working to develop atomic weapons to achieve that goal.”  In March, a prominent Israeli told the NCF that his sources close to Netanyahu had told him that the bombing of Iran was to take place within three months, a worrying claim indeed. It is no secret that Netanyahu wants to launch a primitive strike against Iran, but is this really possible in the short term?

Israel has a history of using primitive strikes against perceived nuclear threats. In 1981 the Israeli air force bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad. And more recently, in 2007, Israeli planes attacked a facility in Syria that was suspected to be a nuclear reactor. With this in mind one can conclude that Israel has the potential to act unilaterally in an attempt to preserve its nuclear hegemony over the Middle East.

Regardless of past history, experts believe that the Israelis lack the hardware to launch an effective, coordinated strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Firstly there is the simply matter of distance - the potential targets in Iran are approximately 1,000 miles away from IDF’s airbases. To launch strikes against Iran, Israel would have to make use of their versions of the American made F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers, because the generation of cruise missiles the Israelis currently have would not possess the required power to destroy the targets. As a result an attack would have to come for close range and strike fighters are Israel’s only option.

Being tied to the use of medium range fighter bombers means refuelling is a major issue; Israel only has between eight-to-ten tanker aircraft, which would be too few to support an effective attack. Recently there were leaked reports that Israel was buying up old soviet airfields in Azerbaijan as a possible base for launching attacks on Iran, but it is debatable if these airfields will provide the logistical flexibility that will be the difference between an attack taking place or not.

Realistically Israel needs support from the United States if it is to attack Iran. Firstly it needs more tanker aircraft, and secondly Israel would want more ‘bunker-busting’ bombs. Currently Israel has the 5,000 lbs GBU-28 bomb, but they would like more modern, more powerful bombs and the platforms to the deliver them. Ideally, hardware like the 30,000 lbs Massive Ordinance Penetrator or GBU-57A/B, and the American strategic bombers required to deliver it. Realistically they would need operational coordination with the Americans on a joint strike mission, not just logistical support, to ensure that a strikes against Iran’s nuclear plants are decisive, and secondly, that an Iranian counter-strike is minimal.   

However Washington is not keen to back Israel in a strike against Iran. President Obama's primary concern is the election in November of this year. While Obama will want to appear to be tough on Iran he will not want to be dragged into another foreign war.  Without the support of the Americans it is very unlikely that Israel could achieve its goals of knocking out Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and its ability to counter attack. 

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, publically doubted the effectiveness of an Israel attack; such a strike, he said, "would be destabilising and would not achieve their long-term objectives". While Douglas Barrie from the International Institute for Strategic Studies believes that: “Even if successful, it would only delay Iran's nuclear programme”.

Today head of the IDF Lieutenant General Benny Gantz announced to the media that he did not believe Iran was attempting to weaponize its nuclear program. He when as far to indirectly address Netanyahu’s push for war, asserting that “the state of Israel is the strongest in the region and will remain so. Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria.”

Gantz’s comments contradict Netanyahu's stance on Iran, and are more in keeping with the broader feeling of the international community. Iran seems to be working more openly with other powers, and the recent P5+1 nuclear talks in Istanbul were broadly considered to have been progressive (as this recent blog by the NCF highlighted). It is very unlikely that the wider global community would praise a preemptive strike against Iran by the Israelis, even if the majority are against Iran being a nuclear State. 

For this commentator at least, an attack on Iran from the Israeli’s seems highly unlikely currently. An attack would be very unpopular amongst the international community and possibly alienate Israel from the US, who want to avoid conflict with Iran in the short term. Furthermore, if an attack is conducted by Israel alone it is unlikely to be successful; Israel simply does not have to means to ensure all their objectives are completed successfully. There is also a danger that an attack will only act to spur on Iran, convincing them that they need a nuclear deterrent to ensure they are safe from Israeli attacks. Netanyahu’s rhetoric regarding Iran is still deeply concerning, but at least in the short term, an attack seems unlikely.    

Monday, April 16, 2012

Home away from home for Syrian refugees

Monitors arrived in Damascus on Monday with Kofi Annan’s peace plan in mind and armed with a UN Security Council vote.  Despite the initial promise of the ceasefire working, sign of any resolution in Syria remains difficult as news of further shelling was reported. 12 people were alleged to have been killed by army shelling of opposition areas in the city of Homs on Monday. It was hoped that a lull in the violence would allow some humanitarian relief to civilians and refugees affected by the continuing crisis.

However, the ongoing violence continues to force Syrians to flee their country and cross borders into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Currently, Turkey is temporarily home to around 24,000 Syrians. A refugee camp in the town of Kilis has over 9,000 inhabitants already.

Recent reports indicate that Turkey plans to build a refugee camp for over 12,000 Syrians in Kilis. The project will initially cost $50m and a further $2m per month to run. There will be 500 Turkish employees working in the site, including teachers, doctors and police. Ankara has already spent over $150m on refugee camps since the Syrian uprising last year. Thus far, Turkey has referred to the Syrian refugees as ‘guests’. However the fear in Turkey is that if the crisis shows no sign of abating, what started off as temporary camps for Syrians will soon turn into permanent homes for tens of thousands unable to return back to Syria.
Turkey’s trade and economy has suffered since the crisis started last year. Syria was once one of its main trade partners in the area and a gateway into the rest of the Middle East. All trade relations with Syria were suspended late last year, bringing to an end the Turkish government’s hope of increasing the volume of trade between the two countries to upwards of $5bn in the coming years. Main Turkish trade cities with Syria such as Gaziantep, known for its textiles and chemicals industries have suffered due to rising costs in seeking alternative, longer transport routes.

Despite backing the Annan peace plan, Ankara must be weary of the continuing violence in Syria. There was substantial rhetoric from Turkey a few months ago of forming buffer zones along the Syrian border to protect civilians fleeing the fighting, but pressure from the Americans and Russians saw to it that no such action was taken. Cross fire by the Syrian army into one of the refugee camps near Kilis, which killed two and wounded a further five, increased the likelihood of Turkey becoming directly embroiled in the crisis.

The Assad regime has protested that Turkey is already involved in the fighting, as is Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Bashar al-Assad is adamant that the continuing shelling is important to eradicate the threat of ‘terrorists’ operating in the country; rebels have reportedly been sponsored and armed by the Saudis, Qataris and Turkey. The continuing shelling by the Syrian army beyond the ceasefire has some commentators predicting that Bashar will carry on trying to militarily weaken opposition areas such as Homs because once he stops, Annan’s peace plan may snow ball him out of office.

Ankara will be praying that Annan’s peace plan draws dividends, because the longer the fighting in Syria continues the greater the economic and humanitarian burden on Turkey. It will also hope not to be embroiled in a direct military confrontation with Bashar. Any attack on Syria will fuel the fire on issues such as Kurdistan, with the PKK being currently supported by Damascus, and trade relations with Iran and Russia. 

For the while, Ankara will keep its support for Annan’s peace plan, continue to disrupt the Assad regime by supporting the rebel groups and hope that the increasing refugee population does not become permanent. For the Syrian refugees, hopes of returning to their homeland must seem bleak as they make home in the growing camps in Turkey.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

How credible is the threat of a Nuclear Arms race in the Middle East?

In recent weeks with all the discussion about Iran pursuing a nuclear weapon, and fears that Israel is planning a strike on Iran to prevent them achieving their goal, many commentators have been warning about the threat of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.  There is real fear the if Iran joins the Nuclear club then Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey  will all be compelled to join as well.  Defence secretary William Hague warned: “If Iran set about the development of nuclear weapons then other nations in the Middle East would do so as well. I therefore do believe there would be a nuclear arms race in the region.”

It is perfectly fair to say that having a slew of new countries with nuclear weapons in the most politically volatile part of the world is far from ideal.  But very few people are questioning the realities of the situation; asking how real is this threat? How far away are these countries for going nuclear?

In Steven A. Cook’s Foreign Policy article ‘Don’t Fear a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East’ (,0) he does try to provide some perspective by assessing Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey ability to ‘go nuclear’. 

-          Turkey: Cook asserts that the country is already under the United States nuclear umbrella; as part of NATO approximately 90 American nuclear warheads are stationed in Turkey.  Despite this backing from the United States, if Turkey (given it pursuit of a larger global role) wanted its own independent nuclear deterrent, it currently has no means of achieving it.  It has no fissile material and no means of enriching or ‘weaponizing’ uranium.  Currently Turkey plans that by 2040, 25% of the countries power will be supplied by nuclear power plants. Many experts think this three decade span is ambitious given the level of technology Turkey currently possesses.  With this in mind, any shift to nuclear weapons program would likely take decades.
-          Egypt: There is little credible threat of Egypt developing a functioning nuclear weapons program any time soon.  Despite Hosni Mubarak spending $160 million on nuclear consultants in the 00’s, it is highly unlikely that Egypt could afford a civilian nuclear program, let alone a military one.  Over the last year Egypt has spent $26 billion of its $36 billion foreign currency reserves to keep the country afloat.  In the aftermath of the Revolution the country’s economy is on the verge of failing, and its infrastructure is crippled.  There is no way Egypt could afford to invest a nuclear program anytime soon.      

-          Saudi Arabia: The oil-rich kingdom has the finances to buy a nuclear weapons program; but it has been claiming to be developing a nuclear arsenal to match Israel’s since the 1970’s, without there ever being any evidence for this.  At this point in time the Saudi’s have no meaningful nuclear infrastructure; despite their wealth it would take years to be in possession of a nuclear weapon.  Cook comes to the conclusion that the Saudi claim, that they will be ‘forced’ to obtain nuclear capability if Iran get the bomb, is purely posturing.

What Cook makes appear is that these three countries do not present a credibility proliferation risk in the short or medium term.  It is clear that Iran getting a nuclear weapon will destabilise and already unstable region but to suggest that it will cause a domino effect, leading other States to obtain nuclear weapons, is, at least in the short term, a gross exaggeration.  

- T.J. Callingham