Whether Iran’s goal is ultimately to produce a nuclear weapon is unknown, but as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said last weekend during his meetings in Washington, if it looks, walks and talks like a duck, it is usually a duck. He also asked a simple question – Would Iran be producing its missile program simply to place medical isotopes on top of their missiles?
At least one world leader is asking the right questions and looking this issue squarely in the face. The others, including President Obama, seem to believe that if the West is patient enough, Iran will buckle under the weight of sanctions, and the breakthrough (if that is what it really is) recently achieved with North Korea will prove to be achievable with Iran.
Well, in the event that time was not limited and the potential consequences of an Iranian bomb were not so frightening, he might have an argument – but we do not believe he does. The Obama administration faces limited options in addressing its dilemma with Iran. While each choice carries its own risks and rewards, the fact that this is an election year in the United States, Israel and Iran taints any option. In short, what was an unsavory range of alternatives is now a question of which is the best looking horse in the glue factory.
Because the Iranians have been playing diplomatic high stakes poker by refusing to allow unfettered access to their nuclear sites by IAEA inspectors, Israel and the United States are now faced with untenable choices. The fact that the Iranian crisis coincided with the AIPAC policy conference and Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, have increased pressure on the Obama administration to act. Many on the left and right assume that Israel will act with or without U.S. assistance or acquiescence. Our view is that at least someone is acting like an adult, for there can be no doubt, after all of Iran’s bellicose rhetoric and shenanigans, where it is heading.
War with Iran
Any war with Iran would be limited in scope, and no one – least of all Iran - doubts that the U.S. and Israel would be victorious. A limited incursion into Iranian sovereign territory would not involve ground troops and would rely predominantly on air strikes by U.S. and Israeli fighter aircraft, bombers and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Due to the short period of time now available in which to rally the international community, commitment of U.S. forces in other theaters of battle, domestic constraints, and America’s unfortunate history in Iraq, there is no tactical ability or political will to insert the hundreds of thousands of U.S. forces necessary to launch a ground war in Iran. This should not, in any event, be necessary.
Airstrikes hold the best option with the least amount of risk and would in all likelihood set the Iranian nuclear program back several years, but would not completely destroy their nuclear capabilities. Due to enhanced sanctions targeting Iran’s ability to purchase military hardware, Iran’s military will remain antiquated. According to GlobalSecurity.org, Jane’s Defence Weekly and other sources, Iran’s Air Force consists of F-14 Tomcats (which the Pentagon retired years ago), Russian MiG 29s and aircraft confiscated from the Saddam Hussein’s Air Force (Sukhoi Su-24s and 25s).
Israeli and American airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities would be limited so as to avoid collateral damage on population centers. Likely targets would include an underground facility at Fordo, outside of Qom, the Esfahan [Isfahan] Nuclear Technology Center, Natanz, the Bushehr nuclear power plant and the Tehran nuclear research center. For airstrikes to prove successful they would inevitably have to involve both American and Israeli assets. The Israeli Air Force lacks substantial mid-air refueling capacities, so the U.S. would need to supply Israel with mid-air refueling tankers.
Israel would find it difficult - due to the range of their F-15s and F-16s - to launch a sustained bombing campaign throughout Iran. Israel would be denied access to any number of landing strips in states that border Iran, even though it is rumored that Saudi Arabia may make its territory available for such a purpose. For this reason, Netanyahu made a request to the Obama administration that the administration fast track the sale of GBU-28 bunker-buster bombs and refueling aircraft to Israel. According to various sources the request is likely to be approved due to Israel’s more general military needs, regardless of the likelihood of military strikes. Interestingly, and often not discussed by Obama’s potential opponents for the White House is that the same request was made to the Bush administration in the closing months of the Bush presidency but was denied amidst fear that Israel would then bomb Iranian nuclear facilities.
While the focus of many pundits has been on the strained nature of political relations between Israel and the U.S. during the Obama administration, the fact is that military cooperation between the two is stronger than it has been in decades – and the U.S. quietly delivered bunker buster bombs to Israel last year.
Despite the apparent failure of diplomacy, the Obama administration has proven effective in aligning its allies toward its Iranian strategy – for the time being. Iranian banks have been blacklisted and the European Union has enacted sanctions targeting Iran’s oil sector, which has damaged the Iranian economy. In talks at the White House earlier in the week, the administration encouraged Netanyahu to allow diplomacy with Iran to run its course before resorting to military strikes. No doubt, Netanyahu will give this another few months to proceed, but we do not believe much more than that.
While the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu was “friendly, straightforward, and serious,” according to a White House official, the Oval Office meeting failed to completely dissuade the Israelis that diplomacy will not work. It is of course likely that diplomacy will fail. The Israelis insist that Iran needs to agree to a verifiable suspension of its enrichment activities as a precondition for talks to resume - a condition that the administration has suggested will end any presumptive talks before they begin. The Israelis have been patient in not launching strikes and allowing diplomacy to run its course. “We waited for diplomacy to work; we’ve waited for sanctions to work; none of us can afford to wait much longer,” Netanyahu said during his AIPAC speech.
Given our expectation that a first strike attack would be launched by Israel and quickly supported by the U.S., Iran would soon find itself overwhelmed militarily. We believe that retaliation by Iran would be short lived and not severe. The Iranian Navy would mine the Strait of Hormuz, launch short-range rocket attacks on Israeli cities and U.S. foreign-based military and commercial assets, and any number of retaliatory moves could be employed. Israel would find itself in a rather unsavory position – with attacks being launched on it from three sides by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. However, this will enable Israel to attack Hezbollah and Iranian missile batteries – which it has been longing to do.
Israel really does not have much of a choice, given that the alternative is to contemplate a Middle East with 10 potential nuclear powers, rather than just one. And this is ultimately the real issue that both Messrs. Netanyahu and Obama must address. Thinking about the Iran dilemma merely in terms of the region is shortsighted and simplistic. Can the world afford a potentially global nuclear arms race?