Will they, or won’t they? Is Israel on a collision course with Iran, or is all the recent saber rattling about Israeli politics?
On the “whack Teheran” side of the equation are several hair-raising statements and a recent war game that practiced just such an attack.
Last month, Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s Transport Minister and a deputy prime minister, said “If Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it. The sanctions are ineffective.” Such an attack was becoming “unavoidable,” he added.
Such talk is hardly new. Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter made it clear last December that Israel does not accept the conclusion of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran halted its nuclear weapon program in 2003. Dichter warned that “The American misconception concerning Iran’s nuclear weapons is liable to lead to a regional Yom Kipper [referring to the 1973 surprise attack on Israel] where Israel will be among the countries threatened.” Dichter is the former head of Israel’s internal intelligence agency, Shin Bet.
According to Agence France-Presse, Shabtai Shavit, the former head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence organization, estimates Iran will have a nuclear weapon within “somewhere around a year” and, if sanctions don’t derail its current program, “what’s left is a military action.”
Prime Minster Ehud Olmert also rejects the U.S. intelligence finding, as do President George Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. In a meeting with Cheney last March, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that “no option” against Iran would be ruled out.
In April, National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Elizer warned that if Iran attacked Israel—a scenario virtually no one outside of Israel and the White House thinks is credible—it “would lead to the destruction of the Iranian nation.” Speaking on the eve of a five-day national civil defense exercise, Ben-Elizer said “The Iranians are aware of our strength but continue to provoke us by arming their Syrian allies and Hezbollah,” suggesting that the Israelis might also hold Teheran responsible for any dust-up with Syria or Lebanon.
Writing in the Beirut Daily Star, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer says he considers it “likely” that Israel will attack Iran before Bush leaves office. “The threat of another military confrontation hangs like a dark cloud over the Middle East.” Fischer speculates “that during his visit, Bush gave Israel the green light for an attack on Iran.”
Former UN delegate and designated neo-conservative berserker John Bolton recently said much the same thing, predicting an attack after the U.S. elections but before Bush leaves office.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and currently with the Brookings Institute, told Reuters, “History shows Israel will use force to maintain its monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East,” and conjectures that “Israeli leaders may see the last few months of a friendly Bush Administration as a window of opportunity.”
Lastly, in late May and early June, Israeli Air Force war games, code name “Glorious Spartan 08,” practiced long-range bombing attacks, as well as search and rescue operations, over the eastern Mediterranean. Israeli aircraft destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and bombed a site in Syria last year, claiming it was a nuclear facility.
But all this bombast is hardly a reflection of general sentiment in Israel. According to a poll conducted by Shivuk Panorama last December, two-thirds of the Israelis are opposed to attacking Iran. Asked “Should Israel alone attack the Iranian nuclear installations?”, 67.2 percent said “no,” 20.9 percent said “yes,” and 11.9 percent had no opinion.
There was also a sharp backlash at Mofaz for his “inevitable” attack remark.
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai charged that Mofaz’s comments were a “cynical use of central strategic issues for internal political reasons.”
Mofaz is positioning himself in the ruling Kadima government to take over should Olmert be brought down by corruption charges currently pending against him. Mofaz, a hawk on security issues, is trying to outmaneuver the more centrist Foreign Minster Tzipi Livni, who also has her eye on the prime minister post.
Indeed, Livni has privately pooh-poohed the Iranian threat. Late last year, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that “in a series of closed discussions,” the Foreign Minister’s opinion was “that Iranian nuclear weapons did not pose an existential threat to Israel.” According to Haaretz correspondents Gidi Weitz and Na’ama Lanski, “Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minster Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears.”
The Israeli press unanimously denounced Mofaz’s threat. Haaretz pointed out that his remark raised the price of oil $11 a barrel, adding “On the one hand that is impressive productivity; on the other it is scary. What is he planning for us during the real campaign? A world war? A clash of the Titans?”
An Israeli foreign ministry official told Agence France Press “Everyone in the country understands his motives are election-related, but making statements like this puts Israel in a very awkward position internationally.”
Speaking on Israeli Public Radio, a “senior defense ministry official” said Mofaz’s comments were “irresponsible and do not reflect the position of our government.” Even right-wing Likud Party MP Yuval Steinitz said Mofaz was “completely irresponsible to say these kind of things.”
So who’s on first?
There is no doubt that Mofaz is trying to carve out a position on the right, partly to distinguish himself from Livni, partly to steal some thunder from right-wing Likud champion Benjamin Netanyahu. But Dichter’s and Shavit’s remarks reflect a powerful section of the Israeli establishment that is not shy about using military force to settle political questions, be it with neighboring countries or in the Occupied Territories.
Could Israel pull off such an attack? According to an Israeli assessment uncovered by the Financial Times, yes.
Israeli planes armed with 2,000 lb and 5,000 lb laser-guided U.S. bunker busters would attack the Iranian enrichment plant at Natanz, and the heavy water production reactors at Arak. Submarine-fired cruise missiles would take out the light water reactor at Bushehr.
Israeli planes would probably emerge relatively unscathed. The only thing the Iranians can throw up against them are ancient F-4 Phantoms, a very good plane in its day, but now 40 years old. Israel’s U.S.-made F-15 and F-16, packing U.S. Sidewinder air-to air-missiles, would make short work of them.
Iran may have purchased Russian SA-20 anti-aircraft missiles, but nothing has been fielded yet.
That such an attack would halt Iran’s nuclear program is doubtful. Iran has put most of its nuclear facilities underground and reportedly has dispersed them widely.
Since Turkey and Syria would refuse to allow Israeli planes to fly over them, Israel would have to cross Jordan and then Iraq to launch the attack. The Jordanians would object, but there is little they could do about it, in part because they don’t have the military capacity to resist, in part because Amman is pretty much in hock to the U.S.
Because the U.S. controls Iraqi airspace, Washington would be in the middle of all this even if an American plane never left the ground. The Baghdad government would certainly protest, but it has even less military capabilities and political juice than the Jordanians. Washington would politely tell Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to stuff it.
It is even possible that the U.S. would join the attack.
An analysis by the Financial Times suggests that Tel Aviv’s threats might be aimed at convincing the U.S. that an Israeli attack was “inevitable,” thus pressuring Washington “to launch one itself to improve the chances of success.”
However, the U.S. military (with the exception of the Air Force) seems less than enthusiastic about undertaking such an attack. Speaking to reporters July 2, Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of the U.S, Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned about the dangers of opening a “third front,” and instead called for a “dialogue” with Iran.
According to Anthony Cordsman of the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies, during Mullen’s recent trip to Israel the admiral Mullens warned the Israelis that the U.S. would not back an attack on Iran during the admiral’s recent trip to Israel.
The recent expose of the Bush Administration’s efforts to destabilize Iran using U.S. Special Forces and ethnic minorities clearly was leaked to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh by high-ranking military officers unhappy with the prospect of yet another war in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, a non-binding resolution heavily promoted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—H.Con.Res.362—is currently winding its way through the House and the Senate The legislation essentially calls for a U.S.-enforced blockade of Iran. It would prohibit “the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program.”
A blockade is a violation of international law. It is also an act of war.
The fallout from a war with Iran—some of it nuclear, most of it political—would be severe. It could ignite a regional war, and even if the Iranians don’t manage to close the Straits of Hormutz, oil prices would likely double (or triple). That, in turn, would send food costs, energy prices, and transportation expenses through the roof.
Israeli analyst Alex Fishman sees the threats directed at Iran as part of a campaign to create a crisis “until someone blinks.” The problem with that strategy, he points out, is that “threats have a dynamic of their own…what happens if the Iranians don’t blink?”
CONN HALLINAN is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus.