Posted by: Shaun | June 22, 2008

Israel Practices Iran Strike

According to the New York Times, in early June the Israeli air force carried out an exercise simulating an attack on Iran’s nuclear development facilities.  The piece, relying on the interpretation of unnamed Pentagon sources, claims that more than 100 Israeli aircraft (F-15s, F-16s, and rescue helicopters) flew 900 miles as part of the mission; roughly the distance they would need to travel in attacking Iran.  Israeli officials refused comment on the specifics of the operation.

The speculation appears to be that the whole thing was conducted for the benefit of the United States and its Western allies, as a means of communicating Israel’s willingness to use force should the efforts to peacefully halt Iran’s nuclear program come to grief.  Although, Iran has taken notice as well.

For Israel, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran-whose president rhapsodizes about wiping the Jewish state off the map-is dire one.  However, Tel Aviv is unlikely to follow through on its saber rattling with any direct military action, at least not any time soon.  In fact, doing so would be a very bad idea.  Here’s why:

  • Foreign intelligence services have done a respectable job of tracking Iran’s nuclear program, but the fact is that no one knows where all of its components are.  The program is dispersed throughout Iran’s more than 1.6 million square kilometers of territory.  Air strikes could conceivably damage the program, but probably wouldn’t be able to destroy it.  Moreover, an attack could actually prompt a crash program to acquire a nuclear bomb at all costs and hasten the emergence of a threat.  Israel’s 1986 raid on the Osirik reactor sped up Iraq’s nuclear program to the point where it had nearly finished a bomb when the Gulf War broke out in 1991.
  • Iran cannot directly retaliate against Israel in the event of hostilities; it has almost no weapons that could reach the Levant and those few that may be able to (assuming they are functional and deployed) would risk the ire of a nuclear armed state.  It could, however, orchestrate serious retaliatory strikes through Hezbullah in Lebanon; a terrorist organization with which it has close ties.  This response would be ideal for Iran, giving it plausible deniability in regard to attacks on Israel, thus allowing to keep its place an “innocent” victim of Israeli aggression.
  • Finally, bombing Iran would have political repercussions within that country, providing fodder for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his hard-line allies.  As it stands, Ahmadinejad’s confederates fared poorly in Iran’s March parliamentary elections; a consequence of popular resentment towards their ineffectual economic policies and constant bickering with the West.  Attacking Tehran would almost certainly galvanise public opinion against Israel and the West, handing the tough-talking conservatives a new lease on political life.

These considerations would come into play if any Western power attacked Iran (immediate terrorist retaliation against Israel as an American proxy is a possibility, as well as strikes against shipping in the Strait of Hormuz).  At the same time, it is certainly not in Israel’s interest to have an avowedly Islamist state acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.  Iran’s nuclear program is a problem of immense difficulty for the international community, but at this point, the risks of a military solution are simply far too high to justify the meager returns of such action…if there are any at all.

UPDATE:  Mohammed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warns against using force on Iran, saying that such action could turn the Middle East into a “ball of fire.”

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