Operation Iranian Freedom?
Israel's decision to conduct a massive air exercise over the eastern Mediterranean in recent weeks has raised questions as to whether this is a rehearsal for an eventual air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. The exercise involved hundreds of aircraft including strike, reconnaissance and aerial tankers for in-flight refueling.
But how realistic is it to contemplate a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran? Two basic facts stand out. Israel could conduct such an attack with cruise missiles from its small fleet of tactical submarines from locations in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. Yet these submarines have limited inventories of missiles. A purely seaborne strike could do little more than mount a token attack on the key Iranian facilities-especially the well-protected and deeply buried uranium enrichment facility at Natanz-unless it used nuclear weapons.
In terms of conventional air-strike capabilities the Israeli Air Force is certainly capable of reaching a number of targets in Iran. The problem is it would have to pass over either Turkey; Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq; or fly a nearly three-thousand-mile-long one-way route via the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. It is inconceivable that Turkey would give permission for the use of its airspace-though Israel might be prepared to ignore the wishes of the Arab countries. But once its aircraft enter Iraqi and Gulf airspace, they will encounter the full array of air defenses that the United States has established since the beginning of the Iraq War. Unless the United States gave permission for such an Israeli attack Israel would risk encountering U.S. anti-air action before it even reached Iran.
Most experts calculate that causing serious damage to Iran's nuclear facilities would require multiple attacks over the course of days, if not weeks-unlike the Israeli air strikes against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in May 1981 and Syria's presumed nuclear facility in September 2007. But if Israeli strikes were part of a joint U.S.-Israeli operation, then the effectiveness of the overall mission would undoubtedly be greater.
So what are the chances the Bush administration will contemplate either giving Israel permission to strike on its own or cooperating in such an attack? Nothing can be ruled out-especially given President Bush's statements that he would never allow Iran to achieve a nuclear-weapons status. The most plausible scenario for a U.S. strike would grow out of other military encounters with the Iranians in Iraq or naval encounters between U.S. and Iranian ships in the northern Gulf. In these situations tactical retaliatory attacks by the United States on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps positions or Iranian ships could escalate to an all-out strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. It must be noted that the United States has a formidable arsenal of precision munitions, long- range missiles and aircraft to use should it choose to do so.
Nevertheless the consequences of such an attack on oil markets, U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reaction of Iraq's government and possible Iranian retaliation against Israel are awesome and suggest such action has a low probability of being authorized. Most significant, bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would be pointless unless a well-thought-out plan was in place on how to deal with the day after. Is it conceivable that a positive political outcome might emerge from such a strike? Purely punishing the Iranians and setting back their nuclear program for months or years will reinforce the nationalism of the country and give the mullahs a further lease on life. A strike would almost certainly lead to an acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program. Even if it flattened most of Iran's known nuclear facilities, it would not be able to destroy Iran's knowledge of nuclear enrichment and bomb making. Israeli or U.S. action would likely leave the mullahs determined to redouble their efforts at any hidden facilities that might escape the bombs.
Could or would Israel try to drag the United States into such a confrontation? The answer is no, unless this is what the Bush administration wants to happen. The indications are that while some White House advisors may still contemplate such an action, it would be far more difficult to convince the secretaries of defense and state that another Middle Eastern war would serve American interests.
Geoffrey Kemp is Director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center. He served in the White House during the first Reagan administration as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council Staff.