Bombing Iran: Tough Tasks for Israeli Intelligence

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.

If indeed a military operation using air strikes is chosen, Israeli intelligence will need to assess the responses of regional countries to the violation of their air space en route to Iranian targets. This assessment will affect the choice of route. There are three routes that have been highlighted: a northern route along the Syrian and Turkish border; a central route over Jordan and Iraq; and a southern route over Saudi Arabia. Although some of these states may allow (or being unable to prevent) one Israeli operational breach of their air space, it is questionable whether they would accept continuous violations of their territorial sovereignty (if that would be necessary to halt the Iranian program). Israeli intelligence would therefore need to assess their responses, both politically and militarily, to breaches of their air space. The chance of hiding their destination if they are detected will be close to impossible since Israel does not enjoy strategic surprise. One problem that intelligence will need to assess is the risk of early detection and the passing of this information to Iran. Given the enmity between Shi'ite Iran and some of the Sunni Arab states, it might be concluded that an Arab detection (excluding a Syrian or Iraqi detection) of Israeli planes will not be passed on to Iran. However, Iran would clearly have an incentive to establish the capacity to detect such an operation as early as possible. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that Iranian intelligence has sought to create an information link in those Arab states that are located along potential Israeli routes.

The success or failure of an actual operation also will need to be assessed. This will involve a damage assessment, noting the effect of the munitions deployed and whether additional attacks are necessary. This is usually done by visual intelligence methods, such as satellites. However, satellite sensors and cameras may not be sufficient to extract such information. Again, human intelligence will be the most reliable mean for acquiring such information. Israel has two special forces units tasked with assisting in air strikes. One is responsible for laser target designation (Sayeret Shaldag/Unit 5101), and the other for real-time bomb damage assessment (Unit 5707). In order to utilize these units, they would need to infiltrate the target sites before an attack. The use of Unit 5101 would also limit problems associated with undertaking the operation in bad weather.

Intelligence will also need to assess the costs of a failed operation. This involves assessing the extent of the nuclear threat in the aftermath of the attack, whether Iran would use the excuse provided by the attack to break out for the bomb, the consequences of the erosion of Israel's deterrence and credibility of military power, and the Iranian response. It is clear that if the operation fails, then the fear that prevented Iran from breaking out no longer exists. Thus, a failed operation would risk having the adverse effect of accelerating the nuclear program. Other important questions that need to be considered are: “Can Iran rebuild the targeted sites or does it need to build new sites? Does it already have extra underground sites to be used if an attack should take place, thereby shortening the time it takes before it can continue its nuclear program? And can Iran's capability to construct new sites be disturbed, for example by denying it the means it needs to do so?”

Related to a military operation,Israel's intelligence service will need to continuously update the assessment of its timetable. In this regard, there are several relevant clocks: when Iran will have the first bomb or the fissile material sufficient to assemble a bomb; when Iran decides to break out for the bomb; when an attack will have the optimal capabilities to succeed; when Iran will have the optimal capabilities to defend itself; and the optimal time of launching an attack from the political viewpoint (for example, whether Israel should allow Western-imposed sanctions time to work or incur the political costs of launching an attack). Iran may choose to break out for the bomb when it deems the strategic environment to be most favorable for such an action to successfully materialize. Will it choose to do it when it has acquired what it considers to be sufficient defensive capabilities to prevent a military operation from succeeding? Will it do it after it has dispersed, concealed and fortified its facilities in such a manner that it could quickly rebuild the nuclear program? Will it do it in the winter, when the rough weather conditions make a military operation more difficult? Will it do it when the Syrian civil war has calmed down and Hezbollah once again can focus on its role in Iran's security concept as a deterrent against an Israeli attack? Israeli intelligence will need to assess when and under what circumstances such a moment might occur.

In the case that a military attack is chosen by the Israeli leadership, there might be a clash between the U.S. and Israel on the legitimacy of the operation and specifically about its timing. Israel, due to its somewhat limited operational and intelligence capabilities, considers the red line to be at the point when Iran has the capability to break out for a nuclear bomb. In contrast, the U.S. considers the red line to be after Iran has in fact broken out for the bomb. The problem for Israel is that the time of the U.S. red line is considered to be too late for an effective Israeli military operation, leaving Iran's nuclear program in the “zone of immunity” from an Israeli attack. Thus, Israel needs to assess whether the United States will, in fact, undertake the operation. Intelligence will also need to assess whether the U.S. has the capabilities to detect an Iranian breakout on short notice and whether it is politically feasible for the U.S. to undertake an operation at that time.