War seems imminent again. According to The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius, the Americans believe that there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran before June of this year when Iran is expected to enter what the Israelis described as a “zone of immunity” to commence building a nuclear bomb.
“Very soon,” he writes, “the Israelis fear, the Iranians will have stored enough enriched uranium in deep underground facilities to make a weapon — and only the United States could then stop them militarily.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to leave the fate of Israel dependent on American action, which would be triggered by intelligence that Iran is building a bomb, which it hasn’t done yet.
The United States are reluctant to engage in military action against Iran. Attacking the country carries great tactical and strategic risks.
Iran has threatened to shut the narrow Strait of Hormuz if menaced which would put roughly 40 percent of the world’s seaborn oil transports at risk.
Tehran has more retaliatory options at its disposal across the Middle East. It could seek to incite Shia violence in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia as well as in Iraq where there are no longer American forces to quell sectarian unrest. The Iranians could also encourage Hezbollah to initiate a renewed missile barrage against Israel. Reportedly, the Israelis are anticipating such a counterstrike and expect casualties on their side to number in the several hundreds.
According to Ignatius, Israel believes that a military strike could be limited and contained. “They would bomb the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and other targets; an attack on the buried enrichment facility at Qom would be harder from the air.”
This would appear to confirm a 2004 report in the German magazine Der Spiegel which said Israel had prepared a “complex yet manageable” plan of attack against six nuclear sites which were to be bombed simultaneously. The scenario envisioned Israeli jets traversing Iraqi airspace. With the Americans no longer present in the country, that could be complicated.
Israeli fighters are more likely to fly over southern Turkey or northern Saudi Arabia to reach their targets now. Neither country wants to have another nuclear neighbor.
The mountainous terrain in the northwest of Iran inhibits the country’s antiquated radar warning systems from spotting the Israelis from afar which makes the northern route an attractive one. Turkey, however, likes to think of itself as an interlocutor between Iran and the West and does not want to be perceived as an ally of Israel’s anymore.
The Saudis, by contrast, are engaged in something of a cold war with the Iranians and wouldn’t stop Israeli aircraft from overflying their northern desert. They have even warned that if Tehran gets the bomb, other powers in the region (i.e., Saudi Arabia) will seek a similar weapons capacity.
Ballistic missiles probably aren’t an option for Israel because they aren’t as accurate as aircraft delivering precision guided munition.
Iran’s nuclear facilities are scattered and concealed. It would be nearly impossible for an attacker, whether it’s Israel, the United States or both, to take out all of the Iranian nuclear sites in a single strike even if their bunker busting bombs are capable of obliterating the ayatollahs’ fortified positions. A unilateral Israeli strike this year would at best set the Iranians back several years in their alleged quest for a nuclear weapons capacity. Indeed, it would likely strengthen their conviction that Iran needs the ultimate weapon to defend itself against Israel.