In the past few days, there have been major high level efforts by the Obama Administration and the British government to talk Israel out of pre-emptive strike on Iran's rogue nuclear facilities.
President Obama's National Security Adviser Tom Donilon failed in three days of talks with Israeli PM Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Barak Ehud and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz to convince them to give sanctions and negotiations more time to work.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague delivered the same message to Israel. In a BBC interview, he said Britain was focusing on pressuring Iran through diplomatic means.
"I don't think a wise thing at this moment is for Israel to launch a military attack on Iran," he said. "I think Israel like everyone else in the world should be giving a real chance to the approach we have adopted on very serious economic sanctions and economic pressure and the readiness to negotiate with Iran."
The back story is very different.
The Israelis are livid over what they see as President Obama's betrayal in starting - again- to engage with Iran in back channel diplomacy in exchange for the U.S. and the EU postponing sanctions until July, with the likelihood of further postponements in exchange for more talks. The Israelis had already agreed to hold off to give sanctions time to work, only to find out later that President Obama was using the waiver Congress gave him in the sanctions legislation to postpone any meaningful action.
This movie has played out many times before in the over 7 years or so the West has known about Iran's nuclear program, with 'talks' spinning into months while the regime simply buys time. The Iranians have no intention of seriously being diverted from making nuclear weapons, because they know that's where the regime's ultimate security lies. They've taken note of how differently President Obama has reacted to Kim Il Sung North Korea and Moamar Khaddaffi in Libya.
The new proposal the Iranians are now taking their time to study allows them to continue enriching uranium to 5% in any quantity, provided they promise not to build an Iranian nuclear weapon.
While they're studying the matter, the mullahs are upgrading and greatly expanding the number of centrifuges at Iran's Fordo underground facility near the city of Qom to allow them to to convert their 5% uranium to weapons grade uranium in a matter of days.
This was the backdrop behind PM Netanyahu's remarks in Cyprus on February 15, where he blasted both Iran and by extension, the Obama Administration, saying that sanctions “haven’t worked” and that a regime which attacks diplomats having nuclear weapons “is something of enormous concern for the United States and for Israel.”
According to what I'm hearing from several sources, the discussions with Donilon were fairly strained. The Israelis see this new back channel proposal to Iran from the Obama Administration as a clear violation of guarantees made to Israel regarding Iran and sanctions, especially since it allows Iran to continue nuclear enrichment as well as the hardening and dispersal of its nuclear facilities. Once the talks are underway, the Israelis understand that they can again be spun out for months, and that there would be no way of stopping Iran's progress towards weaponization during the negotiations until it was too late for Israel to do anything about what they correctly regard as an existential threat.
Netanyahu is headed for the United States to meet with President Obama on March 5th to discuss the matter further.Given that it's election time in America, Netanyahu isn't going to be deliberately insulted like he was the first time he came here, but I doubt Netanyahu has any illusions about President Obama's feelings about him and about Israel. Aside fromtrashing previous agreements with Israel, demanding they retreat to indefensible borders, telling them they have no right to their religious shrines , threatening an aid cutoff, and instituting what amounted to a de facto arms embargo during the early part of President Obama's term, they've watched as the Obama Administration has actively encouraged and enabled the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Libya.
While both men will attempt to keep things civil, especially when the cameras are on them, the meeting is not likely to be an amicable one.
Netanyahu has absolutely no reason to trust anything President Obama says, and he has that in common with many of our allies, who have their own reasons to regard this president as weak and unreliable.
Could the Israelis pull off a strike? As I've discussed on this site several times, there no doubt that they could. And the damage to Iran's nuclear capabilities would likely be far more than merely putting things off for a couple of years if it's done properly.
The obstacles frequently cited are the sheer distance involved, the amount of planes needed, the need for mid-air refueling, the tough Iranian air defenses and the danger of retaliatory strikes from Iran and from Iran's proxies Hezbollah and Hamas.
A couple of years ago I analyzed what an Israeli strike on Iran might look like, and it was interesting to see an echo of some of that thinkingrecently from Hans Rühle, a leading German security expert who was head of the planning department of the German Defense Ministry between 1982-1988.
In an article in Die Welt, Rühle stated that in his opinion, a well planned Israeli attack could significantly set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program by perhaps a decade or more.
I personally see that as a bit optimistic, but at least five years is a certainty and a much longer time is certainly possible depending on what gets hit.
Rühle and I agree that rather than a huge air armada of over a hundred planes, the Israelis would use smaller groups of 25 or 30 planes, each armed with two GBU-28 bunker busters. I think the Israelis would likely proceed a strike with a cyber attack to blind and confuse Iran's radar and missile defenses as they did in Syria. Even though the Syrians had something Iran doesn't, the advanced Russian S - 300 missile defense systems, the Israelis were able to blind and baffle them easily. The Israelis might even possibly mount an EMP attack using a Jericho III missile, which would destroy Iranian communications, computer networks and electronic controls.
The Israelis have one large advantage in an air attack they didn't have before. The most direct route planes would likely take to their targets in Iran is over Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The Iraqis have no air defenses at this time and now that U.S. forces have withdrawn from Iraq, the U.S. has no part in defending Iraq's air space, so the road is wide open.
As for the Saudis, they would have no objections whatsoever to Israel taking out Shi'ite Iran's nuclear program. They've already signaled as much.
Using a smaller number of planes would allow greater flexibility in mid air refueling from Israel's fleet of 9 U.S. made tankers, and also allow attacks to be made in waves against specific targets while other planes refuel. Rühle suspects that the Israelis have configured additional planes as tankers. I know for a fact that Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is currently working on converting a recently-acquired Boeing 707 for use as a super tanker, with delivery scheduled to the IDF by mid year. Never underestimate the Israeli genius for improvisation.
Nor is Israel's arsenal limited to F-15's and F-16's armed with bunker busters. The Israelis have state-of -the art drones available like the jumbo jet sized Eitan, which can carry a one ton payload and fly for 48 straight hours, their fleet of nuclear-capable Dolphin subs, each capable of firing Jericho II and III missiles with great precision and their land based Jericho III's with a range capable of reaching Iranian targets.
Rühle sees the primary nuclear targets as the nuclear plant at Natanz, the conversion facility in Isfahan, the heavy water reactor at Arak and the major weapons and munitions sites in Parchin. In addition, he notes the deep underground enrichment facility at Fordow near Qom and Iran’s nuclear plant at Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf:
Rühle writes that surveillance “information about Natanz is solid,“ adding that the “project has been observed from satellites and from the location from 'Israeli tourists.'”
He added that Israel strongest bunker buster bombs GBU-28 could destroy the roof of the facility. If the damage is not sufficient, a second GBU-28 could be launched to complete the aim of destruction.
According to Rühle, Israel’s successful obliteration of the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 laid an important precedent. He writes that “many experts believe “ that strikes against Iran’s nuclear operations could set back the program 10 years, or possibly longer, based on present knowledge.
The fighter plane requirement would entail 20 F-15 machines each accompanied with two GBU-28s. He estimates that Israel’s air force has over 87 F-15 planes at its disposal. The conversion Nuclear Technology Center of Isfahan, which is largely vulnerable to attack because its buildings are not underground, could be eliminated with GBU-27 bombs. Isfahan converts the yellow cake process into uranium.
The least difficult challenge for Israel’s air force is the heavy-water reactor Arak, observes Rühle. The above-ground facility could be razed with 10 GBU-10 bombs, wrote Rühle. The strike would require 10 F- 16 fighter jets.
According to Rühle, the most difficult obstacle to destroy is the underground Fordow enrichment plant. He notes that special team forces would have to attack the facility.
The alternative would be to strike the tunnel openings with GBU-28 bombs to plug the entry points for a period of time.
The complex Parchin site remains beyond the International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and it is unclear how many bombs it would take to destroy the over 100 buildings, many of which are buried underground. Nuclear warheads are believed to be worked on in the Parchin plant.
Most people I've talked to in a position to know these things agree with Rühle's analysis of the targets involved. I would also add that the use of tactical nukes would make sites like Parchin and Fordow uninhabitable,let alone unusable for quite some time. And a strike on Iran's refineries and oil infrastructure along the Persian Gulf and especially at the oil terminus at Kharg Island would insure a long period of freedom from an Iranian threat because it would eliminate Iran's abilities to finance these sort of toys for many years, and perhaps even involve regime change as Iran's economy goes into free fall. Call it the ultimate 'sanction' if you like.
Would Iran retaliate? Certainly they would. But there's a better than even chance their retaliation would be limited to targets in the Gulf. As I've discussed previously, Hezbollah and Hamas have their own compelling reasons why they might choose not to attack Israel at this time on Iran's orders. Hezbollah in particular might choose to hold its fire so as not to bring on itself the sort of loss of political capital it experienced in Lebanon after the last war from an Israeli retaliation. In 2006, the Israelis largely held off from hitting Lebanese targets in areas not controlled by Hezbollah, but now that Hezbollah is a controlling element in Lebanon those restrictions aren't going to apply in the future, as the Israeli government has already made quite plain. Hamas might also not want to endanger its Gaza fiefdom for Iran, especially since relations between Hamas and Iran aren't what they once were since Hamas decided not to send fighters to Syria to back Assad against their fellow Sunnis.
The chief area of Iranian retaliation would likely be attempts to destroy shipping and close off the Persian Gulf.The U.S. has already made it quite clear that any attempt by Iran to do so with be a red line and bring America's Navy into the picture, with fairly drastic results for Iran.
Iran does have Shahab missiles capable of hitting Israeli territory with conventional warheads, but there are doubts about whether their expertise in targeting these missiles is sufficient to do major damage to Israel. In any event, there's sufficient reason for Israel not to wait until Iran's technology improves. Whatever the cost now, it would be infinitely greater with an Iranian regime armed with nuclear weapons.
What Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu will likely relay to the president when they meet early next is a message that if the U.S. doesn't do something to curtail Iran's ongoing nuclear weapons program, Israel will.
There's no doubt in my mind they have the capability of doing so.