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Israeli attack on Iran 'feasible'

| Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010

In coming days, months or years, Israeli bombers might jet east to do what they did in 1981 and 2007 — destroy an enemy's budding nuclear weapons installations.

Defense analysts consulted by the Tribune-Review say any Israeli action is unlikely until Jerusalem's generals appraise a fourth round of economic sanctions orchestrated by the United States and European allies against Iran.

If those measures and clandestine sabotage efforts prod Iranian hardliners to abandon or delay building a nuclear bomb, the world likely will be spared an Israeli strike, a wider regional war, escalating oil prices, and certain involvement of U.S. forces to protect sea lanes for oil shipments.

If they fail, analysts believe Iranian scientists will develop over the next several years a nuclear-armed missile capable of hitting Israel. Others fear Iran might smuggle nuclear devices to terrorists, including Lebanon's Hezb'Allah and Gaza's Hamas organizations.

That doesn't mean Iran would use the bomb; some experts believe owning nukes would force Iran to curb its behavior lest it provoke other world powers. Yet Israel's leaders see it as the gravest threat of annihilation the Jewish state has faced in its six decades.

Technically possible

Atlantic magazine recently reported that a majority of Israeli defense experts surveyed believe Jerusalem will unilaterally destroy crucial Iranian nuclear installations in the next 12 months.

According to western intelligence agencies, Iran seems to be building a "front end" uranium program and a "back end" plutonium bomb project; many facilities are dual use, serving civilian energy or military weaponization efforts.

Iran legally is allowed to construct a peaceful atomic energy program but questions remain over how close it is to building a nuclear weapon, or if it will do so.

On Monday, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told Fox Business News that Israel must "move in the next eight days" or Iran's first plutonium nuclear reactor at Bushehr will come on line, which it did Saturday. While Bolton said he didn't believe Israel will attack soon, a raid on the facility after it starts operating becomes trickier because explosions could spill nuclear fuel into the Persian Gulf.

A July inspection of Iran's Natanz nuclear complex by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency found that uranium enrichment continued despite orders from the U.N. Security Council to stop. Iran recently announced construction of 10 more enrichment sites, suggesting a shift from large facilities vulnerable to attack.

Israel destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 and Syria's Deir ez-Zor complex three years ago. Those missions were closer to home and didn't require a complex ballet of air refueling tankers, electronic jammers and squads of fighter-bombers on multiple sorties against heavily defended targets, some underground.

With Iran, Israel can't kill a nuclear program in a single day. That's why since 2003 Israel's Project Daniel has toiled to create a "long arm" air strike capability to degrade Iran's nuclear programs.

Israeli generals realize they must whittle an estimated 50 or so Iranian facilities into a handful of "critical nodes." Key targets reportedly include the underground Natanz complex, Bushehr's reactor, the heavy water factory at Arak and the Esfahan works.

"Operationally, this is incredibly difficult," said Mike Pavelec, a professor at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and a noted airpower historian.

"If Israel decides to do it, (it) must specify those targets which are most likely, if destroyed, to degrade the nuclear program. Does Israel have reliable and credible intelligence that will lead them to that conclusion• I don't know," he said.

Citing a 2006 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study by Whitney Raas and Austin Long, retired U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor describes as "technically feasible" a series of Israeli raids using long-range, high-altitude fighter-bombers armed with bunker-busting conventional bombs.

Beyond intelligent target selection, however, Trainor said Jerusalem must cut deals for "passive" or "permissive ingress and egress" over historically hostile nations.

Israeli jets would need to fly north over Turkey or Syria, south over Saudi Arabia, or bisect Jordan and Iraq. Ankara and Damascus most likely won't allow Israeli jets to cross their borders. U.S. jets patrol Iraqi airspace, and any Israeli attack crossing Iraq would implicate America. Yet Saudi officials hinted in June that the longtime foe of Iran might concede airspace to Israeli bombers.

The day after

Even if Israel can pull off an attack, "that doesn't end the discussion," according to former CIA agent Larry Johnson. "What do you do the day or week after the attack• No one has a good answer for that."

Although Johnson doesn't believe an Israeli attack is imminent, he recently co-signed a letter published by the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, or "VIPS," warning that such an action would force the United States into a wider regional conflict. He predicted punishing gasoline prices, unemployment and U.S. casualties if that occurs.

"I don't want President Obama to give Israel a sign, either consciously or unconsciously, that it's OK to attack Iran," he said.

Council on Foreign Relations analyst Robert Danin said Israel doesn't appear to want to go to war but hopes to convey its willingness to do so.

"There still are quite a few unknowns, so it's not a simple question of 'attack' or 'don't attack,' " said Danin, a former U.S. State Department official who later took the helm at former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Office of the Quartet Representative on Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

"How much time is left before Iran has a nuclear weapon?" he asks. "What is that point of no return• What actually can be achieved through the use of force• What is the cost of the attack versus the benefits to Israel• How much pain is Israel willing to endure to succeed at this•

"We don't know those answers yet, so we don't know when or if Israel will attack."

Last resort

Airpower historian Pavelec poses similar questions about Iran.

Like Danin, he termed an Israeli attack a "last resort" that may be forestalled by international sanctions.

"We don't know how much pain Iran will endure. But we know that North Korea was willing to bear a heavy price to build atomic weapons," he said.

Reports from within Iran have suggested that sanctions are biting into Iran's financial, energy, maritime and transport sectors, escalating prices for fuel and other consumer goods.

Former Israeli intelligence officer Barak Mendelsohn, a global counter-terrorism expert at Haverford College, says sanctions "will work only if they will lead to policy changes and, at this point, there are no signs for that."

Mendelsohn believes an attack by Israel might force the rest of the world to disarm Iran, shifting the debate from diplomacy to war. Yet Yigal Carmon, founder of the Middle East Research Institute, suspects Iran will act first.

"Why are we hearing about war now• It's because Iran has begun to feel the burden of the sanctions," Carmon said. "I expect Iran to cause a crisis, perhaps through terrorism. A crisis is good for Iran because it moves the debate away from Iran's nuclear program and instead becomes about stopping a potential war."

University of Hawaii professor Farideh Farhi, an expert on Iran, worries that sanctions actually help the regime in Tehran by destroying the private sector, allowing corrupt hardliners to consolidate power.

"There's always this hoopla about attacking Iran before talks begin," she said. "It's an attempt to intimidate Iran before another round of discussions. I don't take much of that seriously but in the Middle East we always should be careful about rhetoric leading countries to stumble into a war."

While some prominent Israeli thinkers hint that Jerusalem may have to learn to live with a Persian bomb, most Israelis remain convinced that a nuclear-armed Iran is a threat. And Farhi says most Iranians, even those opposed to their government, support a peaceful nuclear enrichment program.

"The rhetoric coming out of Iran is that they have no intention of attacking Israel or any other country without Israel attacking first," she said. "There also have been hints about accepting a more intensive inspection regime.

"Iran is interested in interlocking regional security, so maybe we should address that."

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