An Israeli Attack Against Iran?

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The sixteen Israeli jets—F-16 fighters and F-15 bomber escorts—skimmed low across the desert, flying in tight formation to evade radar. At 5.35 p.m., as the heat of the June day was starting to ebb, they reached their target just south of Baghdad. By the time Iraqi anti-aircraft defenses opened up, it was too late. In fewer than 90 seconds, the Israeli planes had destroyed the reactor and turned safely for home. "We had a huge responsibility towards our country and our people," says Ze'ev Raz, the pilot who led the raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak. "We didn't know if we'd have a second chance."

Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq ignited a diplomatic bonfire, as the U.S., Europe, and the UN Security Council all condemned the operation. But in the years since, many Western observers have conceded that the pre-emptive strike, which set back Baghdad's nuclear weapons program by years, was justified—especially given Saddam's subsequent warmongering and readiness to use non-conventional weapons. With Iran now on course to build its own bomb, the question on everyone's mind is, would Israel do it again?

Israel certainly has the ability to target Iran, with an estimated 100 to 200 nukes of its own (though Tel Aviv refuses to confirm a nuclear weapons program at all). But taking out Iran's nascent weapons factories will take a lot more than a single bombing raid or a few missiles. Drawing the obvious lesson from the attack on Osirak, Iran's leaders have spread their country's nuclear facilities between at least 20 known sites and buried many of them deep underground. Inflicting serious damage would require multiple surgical air strikes. "We are speaking about a large program dispersed over a very large area," says Yiftah Shapir, a military analyst at the University of Tel Aviv's Jaffee Center and a retired air force officer. Iran's facilities are also much further from Israel than Osirak, making a military strike more difficult and dangerous—and probably requiring Israeli bombers to refuel mid-operation. "There are serious operational difficulties," says Emily Landau, head of the Jaffee Center's Project on Arms Control and Regional Security. "But in theory we do have the capabilities."

The leaders of Israel insist that they're focused on diplomatic options and have no military plan ready. But two weeks ago Israel's Defense Minister and its Army Chief of Staff hinted at the possibility of military action if Iran looked like it was close to getting the bomb. This time, though, it's very unlikely Israel would go it alone. Because the U.S. now controls the airspace above Iraq and much of the Gulf, Israel would, at a minimum, need to inform U.S. military commanders in the area before sending its bombers towards Iran. More importantly, many Israeli military and intelligence officials believe that Iran is a global threat requiring a global answer—not a unilateral one. The very idea that a solo Israeli attack is a possibility plays right into the hands of Tehran, says retired colonel Eran Lerman, director of the Israel office of the American Jewish Committee and a former intelligence officer in the Israeli army who oversaw military intelligence gathering on both Iraq and Iran. "[Ahmadinejad's] trying to turn this from an Iran question into an Israeli question," says Lerman. "The point is that Iran is in breach of the will of the international community. We shouldn't play his game."

If diplomatic and economic pressure doesn't work, though, the game will reach a point at which Israelis are prepared to act—with or without their allies. "We dare not let our children live under the shadow of a nuclear Iran," argues Lerman. "At that point all options will be on the table." The alternative, says Yiftah Shapir, "is to come to terms with a nuclear Iran. Absent change we may have to face that reality."