Obstacles Mounting against Israeli Strike on Iran
The war rhetoric has been extraordinarily intense lately. The notion of a doomsday scenario for the Middle East is constantly tossed around various news outlets, ratcheting up tension. Right now, however, talk of a military strike by Israel on Iran’s controversial nuclear program is becoming more muted as the race for the White House gathers pace.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has always been a vocal opponent of Iran, claiming the Jewish state has ‘every right to defend itself’ in the face of Iranian threats. In concert with Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, Netanyahu has called for international support repeatedly in an attempt to tackle the issue. Barak in particular stressed that Iran was approaching a zone of immunity, and that any military chance to halt Iran’s nuclear aspirations may soon prove out of reach.
In the wake of the Republican and Democratic Conventions last week, efforts at finding a solution finally started to take on a more diplomatic tone. During a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu remarked that the international community must draw a red line to prevent Tehran obtaining weapons of mass destruction.
Nevertheless, the military option still remains firmly on the table. According to Israeli news website ynetnews, Netanyahu believes “that the ‘cruel regime’ in the Islamic Republic is forging on with its nuclear program because it has yet to be presented with a clear red line.” He went on to say “the goal is to make Iran understand that the world is serious about the military option”.
Potential military plans have been hampered by a myriad of factors including Iran’s considerable distance from Israel, strong air defences, reinforced targets and now, most notably, the US presidential election. This seems to be the chief reason for Netanyahu’s sudden change in rhetoric and return to the diplomatic table. According to recent Israeli newspaper reports, Washington secretly approached Iran, stating its desire to avert any conflict on condition that the Iranians refrained from attacking US interests in the Persian Gulf. A White House spokesman quickly denied these reports.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney stated during a July visit to Israel that preventing Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon “should be the United States’ top national priority and that no options should be withheld in that effort”. Meanwhile, the Obama administration stressed the importance of sanctions and diplomacy, implying any action undertaken by Israel before the election would have to be conducted alone. Of course, it is somewhat understandable that Obama is stressing diplomacy. War with Iran on the eve of the election would prove detrimental to his campaign.
This is more than likely the core reason for Netanyahu reducing the level of sabre-rattling over the past few days. Statistics and forecasts about the 2012 US presidential election are becoming an increasingly vital element of Israeli foreign policy, with at least 62% of Republicans supporting an Israeli strike on Iran, as opposed to 39% of Democrats.
Israel might have a greater chance of persuading the United States to partake in any potential attack if Romney wins the race to the White House. Therefore, Netanyahu has little option but to wait until November. If he leads Israel to war alone, without waiting two months for a potential Republican victory and powerful ally, that choice could prove short-sighted and absurd.
Israel successfully acted alone against the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, as well as a nuclear facility under construction by Syria in 2007. Both of these events were pre-emptive strikes by the Jewish state on one target, catching both Iraq and Syria by surprise. The situation with Iran is completely different. Talk of an Israeli attack has been ongoing for several years, meaning surprise is firmly out of the question while the Iranian nuclear sites are widely dispersed throughout the country.
Any Israeli airstrike would have to dismantle a complex and extremely dangerous Iranian air defence network, in addition to hitting up to eight nuclear sites and associated military facilities. Analysts have questioned whether the Israeli Air Force is capable of carrying out such a complicated operation without the support of the United States and their stealth assets. Israeli F-15I Ra’am and F-16I Sufa fighter aircraft are far more modern and capable than most assets in the Iranian air force, which consists of 1970s and 1980s vintage American and Soviet aircraft. However, distance and fuel would be problematic.
Most of the key Iranian nuclear sites lie beyond the range of Israeli fighters, meaning extensive aerial refuelling support would prove necessary. Israel only possesses seven tanker aircraft, meaning a sustained air campaign would be difficult to implement. The route to Iranian targets would prove even more problematic, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia forming a hostile barrier to Israeli aircraft. Even though Saudi Arabia is against the Iranian nuclear program, the Kingdom may deny Israel the use of its airspace. One potential route would be via Jordan and Iraq, with tanker aircraft carrying out refuelling operations over the Iraqi desert.
The nuclear sites at Esfahan and Arak are vulnerable to air attack but Natanz in central Iran is reinforced with 6 feet of concrete and 33 feet of earth, and would prove difficult to destroy. The key enrichment facility at Fordo would be an even greater challenge, as it is constructed inside a mountain. All four of these facilities are protected by a network of surface to air missile batteries.
Most analysts believe an Israeli offensive against Iran’s nuclear program would be difficult, but not impossible. A single strike reminiscent of Osirak or Syria would involve Israeli aircraft fighting their way into Iran, striking air defences, destroying multiple targets hidden deep underground, and then fighting their way back home. A more likely scenario would involve a sustained air campaign carried out over several days and weeks in an effort to dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Such a campaign would benefit significantly from American assistance, especially the deployment of aerial refuelling assets and strategic bombers. It appears highly likely that Israel has to wait until November before making any decision on attacking Iran. A victory for Mitt Romney might push war in the Middle East ever closer, and if Obama is re-elected, Israel may well take the risk of attacking Iran alone.
Even though there are tremendous obstacles involved, Israel has succeeded in carrying out ‘impossible’ operations in the past, most notably the bombing raids against Osirak and Syria, as well as the daring rescue of 102 hostages in Entebbe in 1976. Observers will be watching the Middle East intensely over the next few weeks. Depending on who wins the race to the White House, all hopes of a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis could disappear by November.
Imagenote: Darrell I. Dean, U.S. Air Force/ Wikimedia/CC