Friday, 27 April 2012

Israel says other nations ready for strike against Iran

Israel and other countries have prepared their armed forces for a potential strike against Iranian nuclear sites, Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said April 26, AP reported. Gantz did not specify which nations are prepared, but he said that they are ready. Israel hopes there is no need to use force, Gantz added.

Given the rank of the officer dictating these remarks, it would be worth gauging any meaning beyond rhetoric. While it is true that Israeli diplomatic-speak has been vitriolic lately, it would not be surprising if the screws were being tightened. 

Israel is feeling their safety net drop away and the nuclear threat increase. And while many are sceptical of the imminence of an Israeli strike, the pre-emptive strikes it has carried out in the past against both Syria and Iraq prove it is capable of such actions.  

Israel has felt uncomfortable sitting so close to a regime that has threatened multiple times to destroy it completely, and who could possibly have the means to do so in the near future. Israel worries because of the proximity of the two countries, the unrest that has spread over the Middle East and the dour historical and religious tension that still antagonises their relationship. 

Iran still holds its cards very close to its chest regarding their nuclear program but Israeli intelligence has indicated many times that the progress towards a Iranian bomb could at a more advanced stage than otherwise realised.

There were indications recently of an Israeli plan to base a forward operating base in Azerbaijan. This would seem to indicate that Israeli intelligence about the Iranian program may be more comprehensive than some of its allies, namely the US. Israel, as a geographic state, is on the strategic back-foot for any strike into Iran. 

The distance, as the fighter-bombers flies, to the Iranian border is, at its narrowest, 1700km. This would require a fully equipped aircraft to refuel during the flight. If tactics and regional air-space are factored in, the route becomes more convoluted and potentially impassable. Staging an attack from an Iranian border country like Azerbaijan would therefore make sense strategically.

While the rhetoric appears to indicate Israeli military mobilisation is just starting, their intelligence agencies have been hard at work. Reports of dead nuclear scientists have the stamp of the known Mossad modus operandi and the various unexplained (or poorly explained) explosions at Iranian ballistic missile facilities imply Israeli sabotage handiwork.

But Iran is not Syria in 2007 nor is it Iraq in 1981 where the nuclear plants were isolated and the single attacks resulted in destruction of those country’s nuclear programs. Iran maintains multiple nuclear facilities scattered all over its huge country. 

Some are built strictly for material processing. Others are reactor types, while still other facilities have functions that are unknown to most of us and which the Israelis potentially don’t fully understand. Many of these targets are above ground but surrounded by anti-air positions, while a few are hidden inside hardened buildings or even tucked into the side of mountains. 

Addressing the Iranian nuclear threat wouldn’t be a simple drive-through experience with a few aircraft. The raid would surely require a multi-role campaign involving dozens of strike aircraft and tens of support aircraft, with every frame aloft increasing the chance of failure. The Israel Air Force by itself is too small to field so many airframes at once and the consequences of missing even a single nuclear facility are unthinkable for the region’s security.

This is why Israel is coordinating any planned attack, real or hypothetical, with other countries. By itself it cannot inflict lasting damage to the Iranian nuclear program but a coalition of strike aircraft certainly could. The questions are just how many aircraft would be necessary, who would be willing to join the Israelis in the attack, and would an airstrike in itself even be sufficient?

The US and NATO are clearly unwilling to lead any pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear plants. They are fresh from a stand-off air battle with the Gaddafi regime in Libya, still working hard to resolve the Afghanistan security situation, and monitoring their own economic problems with re-emerging national differences in Europe. 

So although the Obama administration has never taken the threat of military action off the negotiating table with Iran, and US carrier groups and minesweeper class destroyers have increased their presence in the Persian Gulf, the US still would prefer to find a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat. Israel can’t rely on US support if it decides to strike first against Iran, even though the US would likely get dragged into the fight to protect its interests. 

Israel has seen a shift in US security guarantees over the past few years and the unconditional support they enjoyed during the Cold War and through the 1990s has slowly dissipated. The US could still assist the Israelis but politically they feel there is a more peaceful solution yet. But there are still a few other options for military support that Israel can turn to.

It would be a huge shock, and extremely unlikely, to see a Saudi-Israeli coalition strike on Iran. But the Saudis are just as concerned over the potential for Iranian petro-blackmail if they attain a nuclear weapon. The Saudis may not assist directly, but they would be the first to wipe sweat from their foreheads if such a strike took place. 

Jordan has its reasons to collude with Israel, but its military is even smaller that the Israel Defence Force (IDF) and it lies geographically just as far away. Turkey on the other hand could potentially assist in opening airspace or supplying refuelling aircraft but Turkey’s inevitable position as a regional strongman is too underdeveloped to risk assisting too overtly.  

Israeli rhetoric and war-talk works in theory but in practice the country has very limited options. This is not to say they cannot do it, rather it points out the special dynamic that Israel are playing during the on-going negotiations with Iran. Consider the classic carrot-and-stick method, or perhaps the ‘don’t-make-me-loose-the-dogs’. 

In the complex chess game of international relations having an unpredictable and straining Israel must focus the attention of the Iranian negotiators. Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz probably couldn’t launch an effective strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, but the threat is just as effective on Iranian psychology.

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