Bombing Iran: Tough Tasks for Israeli Intelligence

From detection to long after destruction, the prospect of an attack on Iran puts big demands on Israel's spies.

Historically, Israel's intelligence services have played a vital role—both direct and indirect—in making decisions of war and peace. In 1954, Israeli intelligence persuaded then Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon to approve of an attempt to sabotage the Anglo-Egyptian agreement concerning British withdrawal from the Suez Canal. And there would have been no air strikes on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and the Syrian reactor in 2007 if not for the information collected by Israel's intelligence services. Not only are the three current intelligence chiefs (Aviv Kochavi of military intelligence [Aman], Tamir Pardo of Mossad, and Yoram Cohen of Shin Bet) among the key individuals tasked with collecting and presenting information related to an Israeli military operation against Iran's nuclear program, they are also part of the inner circle of advisors to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Moreover, they would be responsible for assessing the civil and political consequences of attacking Iran's nuclear facilities.

Although there are several forms of military operations that could be undertaken, with Israel's capabilities and preparations in mind most analysts focus primarily on air strikes directed against Iran's key nuclear sites. There are five main operational tasks related to destroying an underground facility: detecting the facility; characterizing the site's features; planning the attack; neutralizing the site; and assessing the success of the operation.

A critical question for Israeli decision-makers and the intelligence apparatus is whether they have sufficient qualitative and accurate intelligence on the Iranian nuclear sites. There is no simple solution to locating and characterizing an underground facility. Possible options include imagery intelligence (photographs from satellites), signature intelligence (detecting heat, sound, or vibration), signals intelligence (radio and radar signals), and the use of human intelligence (agents or informants). Usually, one source is not enough to characterize a facility and determine whether it is for leadership protection, weapons production, weapons storage, or something else. In order to integrate all the methods in an efficient and cost-effective endeavor, one must first obtain the approximate location of a site. This is usually done with either human intelligence or satellites imagery. Israel has some tools to detect underground and excavated facilities. The Ofeq series of reconnaissance satellites provides some photographic coverage of Iran. Furthermore, the Eros-B satellite provides it with a camera that improves the assessment capabilities regarding sites of interest. The satellites' images can help answer questions regarding whether construction is taking place under the surface, what kind of materials are used in the construction process, and how deep the Iranians are digging. However, given the large size of Iran, and Israel's somewhat limited satellite assets, searching for clandestine facilities is a challenging task. Moreover, the hide-and-seek game played between Iran and Israeli intelligence allows for the use of deception, which further complicates the search. In order to reduce the risk of deception, intelligence needs to draw its information from multiple sources. Human intelligence would provide added value in this regard and may be the most effective mean to detect clandestine facilities.

To neutralize a site means either the physical destruction of the site or functional disruption. In the Iranian case, with its advance rebuilding expertise and experience, the difference between physical destruction and functional disruption may not be large in terms of the time it would take for the same level of activity can be restored. Given Iran's expected ability to reestablish its nuclear program after absorbing an attack, an assessment of the time period for which it is halted will be necessary. Intelligence will also need to assess the operational requirements to take out the sites. The uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, built into a mountain, would be particularly difficult to penetrate. Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak once called it “immune to standard bombs.” The enrichment facility in Natanz is also heavily fortified. The complex is underground, covered by layers of concrete and metal, and is protected by Russian-made surface-to-air missiles. Intelligence will need to assess the vulnerabilities of these sites and whether the IDF has the capability to take them out for a sufficient period of time.