Wednesday, September 30, 2009

High Noon for Israel

Posted by Matt Gurney on Sep 29th, 2009

Now that Iran has admitted that is has constructed a secret facility for producing enriched uranium – one very hard to destroy in a military strike – Israel must be feeling the sand slip through the hourglass. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad already has made clear that he wishes to see Israel destroyed, and now his regime has been caught building a hardened facility to produce nuclear weapons. What is Israel to do? The American position is not encouraging. Although professing concern about the threat of an Iranian nuclear program, President Obama seems determined to push off making any decision to confront Iran. Even after the recent revelations, Obama would rather delay a day of reckoning through international diplomacy than challenge Tehran over its illicit nuclear program.

In its aversion take action, the U.S. is not alone. Russia and China don’t consider Iran a threat. On the contrary, both have used their veto power on the UN Security Council to prevent meaningful action from being taken against Iran. Major European powers, meanwhile, aren’t interested in a war. Canada considers Israel an ally, but doesn’t have the military capability to take on Iran.

Left to face confront the Iranian regime on its own, Israel is left with three main options. And none of them look good.

Do Nothing And Hope for a Miracle

This is what Israel has been doing since the Holocaust-denying, Israel-hating Ahmadinejad first threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Four years later, American and Israeli politics are different – President Bush has been replaced by the dovish President Obama, while Israel has elected as prime minister the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, who has pledged to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon – but Iran remains as menacing and uncooperative as ever. Not only has Iran refused to open its nuclear program to inspectors, but it has test-fired missiles capable of hitting Israel.

Despite the ample provocation, Israel might be sufficiently cowed by international pressure to put off an attack, always hoping that a better option will come along. Israel has shown tremendous patience in the past, absorbing constant attacks without retaliation. Moreover, there is concerted pressure on Israel not to act. The United States has refused to greenlight an Israeli airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities – former Obama advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has even urged the president to attack Israeli planes in the event of an aerial offensive against Iran – and it is likely that Israel is being threatened, bribed, and cajoled by administration figures into refraining from military action.

Perhaps Israel will bend to this pressure. It will be harder this time, however. Israel knows that there are no upcoming American elections that might usher in a president more favorably disposed to Israeli security concerns. And if no action is taken against Iran after the recent discovery of the Qom nuclear facility, the Israeli leadership may justifiably conclude that nothing will convince the administration to take a harder line on Iran. In that case, Israel will be forced to consider more drastic action.

Hit Iran with a Limited Military Strike

This option is no doubt under close examination in Tel Aviv. But the decision to attack Iran is fraught with incredible risk for Israel.

Iran has dispersed its nuclear production facilities across the country, making it difficult to deploy overwhelming force against any one of them. Iran also possesses advanced, Russian-made anti-aircraft weapons. In a limited strike scenario, Israel would have to settle for merely damaging the Iranian nuclear program, as it is too large, scattered, and protected to be totally destroyed in a limited strike.

The nature of the strike is difficult to predict (the Israelis obviously aren’t advertising their plans), but it would certainly involve an air strike by as many fighter jets as Israel could send that far, perhaps three or four dozen, at most. These planes would attempt to use precision-guided bunker-busting bombs to destroy as many of Iran’s nuclear facilities as possible, but would also need to worry about Iranian air defenses. Israel could also send in Special Forces teams to attack or sabotage the Iranian program, but the same problems remain: they would be a very long way from home, and all they could hope to accomplish would be to delay the program, at the cost of many Israeli lives and massive international condemnation. Whether Israel is using planes or missiles, the Qom facility, buried under a mountain and easily defended, would be a very tough target to destroy in an air strike.

Even so, such an attack cannot be ruled out. Indeed, there are signs that it is under consideration. Saudi Arabia, whose Sunni leadership fears what a nuclear-armed Shiite-regime in Iran would do, has apparently conveyed its willingness to permit Israeli aircraft to use its airspace to attack Iran. Israel could also attack Iran using submarine-launched cruise missiles: An Israeli submarine recently traveled through the Suez Canal for the first time, entering the Persian Gulf, from where it could strike Iran. Israel has just taken possession of two more submarines, both also capable of such attacks.

Iran has said that it would destroy Israel if attacked. But then, Iran has pledged to destroy Israel merely for existing. That being the case, Israel rightly feels that destroying the Iranian nuclear program is necessary for its survival. And that means that an Israeli attack on Iran remains a very strong possibility.

Pre-emptive Nuclear Attack

This is the most frightening of the hypothetical scenarios, but it cannot be ruled out. As discussed above, Iran’s nuclear program would be very difficult to destroy in a conventional attack, and Iran and Israel are too far apart for Israel to strike with full power. Thus, the nuclear option cannot be ruled out.

If Israel did choose to attack with nuclear weapons, they would likely limit their strike to a few targets believed to be the most vital to the Iranian program, certainly including the Qom facility. Small nuclear weapons, exploded at ground level, can totally destroy any target, while somewhat limiting the amount of radioactive fallout that is sent across a large distance, thus limiting collateral damage.

All things are relative, however: “limited” collateral damage from a nuclear strike is still an enormous amount of damage, and the Qom facility, if struck by a nuclear weapon, could put up to a million lives in danger. That is, of course, a terrible risk, one no human-rights respecting country would take under ordinary circumstances. But such is the existential danger of a nuclear-armed Iran that Israel ultimately may have little choice.

Israel Alone

Faced with a brutal madman, who cares nothing for the life of his own people, who denies the mass murder of European Jewry, and who has repeatedly signaled his support for a second Holocaust against the Jewish national home, Israel must wonder how the rest of the world can remain so blind to Iran’s genocidal threat. In the end, though, this is the grim geopolitical reality. Israel’s options are few, they are poor, and time is running out.

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