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.    

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