The Many Obstacles to an Israeli Attack on Iran

  • Share
  • Read Later
Could Israel launch an attack on its own to cripple Iran's nuclear weapons program? It certainly has the motivation. Tel Aviv is even more worried than Washington about the prospect of Iranian nukes — those bombs might one day be loaded onto missiles that can easily reach Israel. And the Israelis have previously shown that they have the will: In 1981, Israeli warplanes set back Iraq's nuclear weapons program with a bombing raid against the Osirak nuclear reactor.

But an Israeli attack on Iran is fraught with as many potential pitfalls as an American strike would be. Seth Jones, a Middle East analyst for RAND, has extensively studied possible Israeli military operations against Iran and none of them leave him particularly sanguine. Israel does have conventional missiles it could launch from land or from ships and diesel-powered submarines, but their capabilities would be limited for this type of mission in terms of range and accuracy. The most likely weapons Israel would use, Jones believes, would be its American-made F-15 and F-16 warplanes that have "long-range strategic strike capabilities."

Air strikes, however, would also be difficult to carry out, since reaching the targets would be a problem for the warplanes. Israel does have aerial tankers, which would be needed to fuel the jets for the long flight to Iran and back, and its F-15s and F-16s have been conducting a lot of refueling training. For the most direct route to Iran, Israel would have to sneak its planes across Jordan and obtain fly-over rights through Iraq from patrolling U.S. jets. That means Israel would likely have to get if not Washington's approval for a strike, then at least "a yellow light," says Jones.

In addition, Israel can't muster the firepower that the U.S. has, so its jets could likely handle only a limited number of targets — perhaps the soon-to-be-operating Bushehr reactor on Iran's Persian Gulf coast and the fuel enrichment plants at Natanz south of Tehran. That means the raid could only hope to set Iran's nuclear program back for several years.

Israel has done "serious" contingency planning for a strike on Iran. Its air force, according to Jones, has conducted a number of training exercises useful for an Iran strike, such as simulated long-range air attacks. Jones says there are also signs that Israel has stepped up its collection of electronic intelligence in the Persian Gulf and against Arab countries that its jets might have to pass over for an attack. But how serious Israel is about actually carrying out a strike "is a separate story," he says. "I think the likelihood at the moment is pretty low."

It's easy to see why. In the event of an Israeli attack, Iran would surely retaliate, perhaps striking Israel with the conventionally armed missiles currently in its arsenal or goading Hizballah to unleash another round of terror attacks. Arab reaction to an Israeli air strike would also be grave for both Tel Aviv and Washington. "Even if the Israelis didn't get a yellow light from the U.S. and they decided they had to strike on their own, it would be viewed among all major Arab capitals as at least supported by the United States," Jones says. A Sept. 11 report on military options by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank warns that an Israeli strike "may also strengthen the Iranian regime's stance to move toward nuclear capabilities, and drive many neighboring states to support Iran's bid for nuclear weapons."

Israel realizes the consequences as well, which is why for now it wants the U.S. and Europe to pursue robust diplomacy, backed by economic sanctions if needed, to curb Iran's nuclear program. "The economic and diplomatic leverages are there," says one Israeli diplomat, "It's only a matter of political will to bring about a different reality in Iran. There's a lot that can be done in terms of pressuring the Iranian leadership through diplomacy and economic sanctions." But if all that failed and Iran's nuclear program moved closer to a bomb, this diplomat warned, a military strike "would probably be something people would start thinking about."