The discussion in the last few years about a possible United States assault on Iran's nuclear facilities has often been accompanied by the coda that if Washington refrained from targeting this member of the "axis of evil" proclaimed by George W Bush in January 2002, then Israel might - with or without American collusion or forewarning - act on its own account. Several columns in this series have examined the possible circumstances and consequences of an Israeli attack, including the likelihood of involvement of the US itself after expected Iranian retaliation (see, for example, "Israel, the United States and Iran: the tipping-point" [13 March 2008] and "Iran, Israel, and the risk of war" [24 July 2008]).
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Now, the interregnum in Washington before the inauguration of Barack Obama on 20 January 2009 is coinciding with a fresh round of nervous speculation about Israeli plans and intentions. Two recent reports widely circulated in the Israeli press serve as a reminder of the continuing risk of a conflict involving Iran. The first was that Iran had on 12 November conducted another test of a medium-range ballistic missile capable of hitting targets right across the region (see "Amid nuclear tensions, Iran says it successfully launched rocket", Ha'aretz 26 November 2008); the second was that Iran claimed on 26 November now to have installed 5,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges.
Much is being made of Iran's new missiles, both in Israel and the United States. Uzi Rubin - the founder of the Israel Missile Defense Association (Imda) - argues in a leading US defence journal that the new Iranian Sajeel/Ashura missile is far more advanced than any previous type (see Uzi Rubin, "Iran's Game-changer", Defense News, 24 November 2008). Most Iranian surface-to-surface missiles have been based on North Korean technology, especially the No Dong series of missiles, which themselves use technology based on the Soviet Scud missiles of the 1950s.
Rubin, however, claims that the Sajeel/Ashura "is a brand-new missile, an original design more advanced than anything available to the North Koreans themselves." This may be rather over the top, but it does appear that the new missile is a relatively advanced two-stage solid-fuel system, which would certainly be a generation ahead of the liquid-fuelled No Dong (see Lauren Gelfand & Alon Ben-David, "New missile marks 'significant leap' for Iran capabilities", Jane's Information Group, 14 November 2008).
To add to the sense of unease in Israel, the Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset on 24 November that Hizbollah now has 42,000 missiles, three times the total available at the time of the July-August 2006 war. Most of these are short-range unguided Katyusha-type rockets; but others have a range sufficient to reach all the significant populated centres in Israel as far south as Beersheba in the Negev desert (see "Hezbollah missile stock ‘tripled'", BBC News, 24 November 2008).
A time of choice
None of this, of itself, means that Israel is preparing for a military attack on Iran. But there are dangers and these need to be put in context. The overwhelming view in security circles in Israel is that a nuclear-armed Iran is completely unacceptable, either now or in the long term (see "Israel won't allow a nuclear Iran", Jerusalem Post, 29 August 2008). In this perspective, Israel's regional nuclear dominance is essential for its security for as long into the future as can be foreseen. A nuclear-armed Iran is out of the question in its own terms, but also because it might also set in motion a regional proliferation of nuclear capabilities involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and ultimately even Syria. This might be over a twenty-to-thirty-year timescale but that is not long in terms of Israeli security thinking.
Furthermore, for the more immediate future, Israeli military planners can point to the potential for a rapid Iranian "break-out" from its current civil nuclear-power ambitions. There are a number of western analysts - usually but not always of a hawkish disposition - who claim that Iran will shortly have enough low-enriched uranium to be able to run it through the centrifuge cascades. They would further enrich it to the point where there might be enough weapons-grade material for a single crude "gun-type" uranium-based bomb (see William J Broad & David E Sanger, "Iran Said to Have Nuclear Fuel for One Weapon", New York Times, 19 November 2008).
Whether Iran has the technology to actually produce such a device is unclear, and there have been reports that Iran's supplies of uranium ore are so contaminated with heavy metals that the resultant bomb would not work. No one can really be sure; in any case, producing a nuclear arsenal that could serve any kind of military purpose could still take years and there is no indication that Iran intends to take this path. From the Israeli perspective, though, the possession by Iran of even one "inefficient" device would be an act of huge political symbolism, both in terms of domestic Israeli concern and its perception of its military status across the region.
In one sense, none of these short-term developments matter as much as the real concerns among Israeli military strategists. This is that the Iranians do not seek to develop nuclear weapons in the coming years. Instead they work hard to develop their civil nuclear infrastructure - building more nuclear power stations (six more are planned after Bushehr), as well as research reactors and enrichment plants (see "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest", 21 August 2008). All the time, they would be acquiring comprehensive nuclear expertise that could allow them to develop nuclear weapons at any time of their choosing over the next decade.
An Israeli nightmare
There is a further political context for this kind of worst-case scenario, one that combines developments in Iran and the United States (see Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war", 28 October 2005). Over the past couple of years, power has become more and more concentrated in Tehran in the hands of the elderly supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For all his populist anti-Zionist rhetoric, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is little more than a puppet, but he is presiding over a deteriorating economy that combines 30+% inflation with a budgetary crisis, the latter worsened by the recent halving of oil prices to around $50 per barrel ("The party's over", Economist, 20 November 2008). He faces an election in June 2009 and it is by no means certain that Khamenei will back him; Khamenei might prefer another "principalist" who would help distance the supreme leader from the current problems.
This is becoming more and more necessary since, as one current analysis puts it: "the Islamic Republic is facing an urban, educated, healthy and informed population, but has yet to deliver political liberalisation to accommodate prevailing societal realities, while economic difficulties threaten living standards" (see "Republic Enemy: US policy and Iranian elections", Jane's Intelligence Review, 13 November 2008 [subscription only])
If Ahmadinejad is dumped and if a Barack Obama administration is willing to engage with Khamenei, then many things become possible (see Mehdi Khalaji, "Problem with Engaging Iran's Supreme Leader", RealClearPolitics, 13 November 2008). They could include a continuation of nuclear developments under really strict International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision; serious diplomatic talks; and an easing of sanctions leading in turn to the ability to import badly needed oil technologies (see Jan De Pauw, "Iran, the United States and Europe: the nuclear complex", 5 December 2007). The result could be something of an economic turnaround that would preserve the religious principalists under Khamenei and reduce the threat of a reformist comeback (see Nasrin Alavi, "Iranians' interrupted freedom", 8 October 2008).
For Israel's strategists this is getting close to a nightmare scenario: a rearmed Hizbollah and an easing of US-Iranian relations while all along (at any time between around 2014 and 2040) the Iranians increase their ability to "go nuclear" at short notice.
A crucial timescale
This, again, does not make an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities imminent, but two further things have to be factored in. The first is that the Israeli Defence Forces, with all their supposed power, were efffectively humbled by Hizbollah in southern Lebanon in mid-2006 (see "Lebanon: the war after the war", 11 October 2006). There is, as a consequence, a deep-seated desire to regain their status, both within Israel and across the region. An attack on Iran coupled with an overwhelming response to any Hizbollah action would do just that.
The second aspect is that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would not be comprehensive in its impact since Israel simply does not have sufficient air power. The intention, instead, would be to incite an Iranian military reaction directed not just at Israel but at US forces in the region, especially in Iraq. That would bring the United States into the war, which really would result in serious damage to Iran's military capabilities, including its nuclear programme.
This is where the Barack Obama changeover is so significant. The George W Bush-Dick Cheney axis would be well-nigh certain to order just such a massive air power response. An Obama administration, on the other hand, might be just too canny to fall into the trap (see Karim Sadjadpour, "U.S. Engagement with Iran: A How To Guide", Middle East Progress, 25 November 2008). It would recognise that US forces are so stretched in the region that a massive military response to Iranian attacks will pull the United States into a third war in the region.
This is why the current timescale is so crucial, specifically the next eight weeks through to Barack Obama's inauguration. It also explains the deep unease in the upper echelons of several western European governments, amid a sincere hope that those eight weeks pass without incident.