The escalating possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, and the degree of United States involvement in the action, has dominated the period since December 2011 and been the subject of several columns in this series (see, for example, "America, Israel, Iran: war in focus", 15 December 2011).
In the course of March 2012 the tensions eased a little, mainly because a new round of talks was agreed between Iran and the so-called “P5 + 1” group (consisting of the US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany) - though the starting-date and location of these have yet to be scheduled.
The relative softening of the atmosphere may also be related to the impact of the increasingly tough sanctions against Iran, and a consequent readiness by the Tehran government to contemplate some modest concessions (see Rick Gladstone, “Impact of Iran Sanctions Widens”, New York Times, 4 April 2012).
There are, however, counter-signals, such as the US navy's decision to maintain two carrier battle-groups in the region and a third on call in the Mediterranean, as well as to reinforce other military units already deployed in Iran’s vicinity. This reflects not Barack Obama’s desire to become engaged in a war with Iran, but rather Washington’s need to be prepared for a confrontation between Israel and Iran that escalates out of control (see "America, Israel, Iran: mediation vs war", 16 February 2012).
The Israeli position was articulated by Binyamin Netanyahu when he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) on 5 March 2012, during the period of most acute tensions with Iran (see "Israel cannot afford to wait much longer on Iran", Ha'aretz, 6 March 2012). More recently, to his domestic audience, Netanyahu has been at pains to argue that Israel would suffer few civilian casualties in a war - even if Hizbollah became involved and started to rain some of the thousands of rockets in its possession onto Israeli territory. The prime minister’s hardline stance has caused great concern among many analysts and politicians that an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would be the start of a destructive war with dangerous outcomes.
Now that the diplomatic talks have been arranged, it is on balance unlikely that Israel will for the moment take action against Iran. But if they start and then fail to make progress, or if Iran is seen as using delaying tactics, then the risk of war will increase rapidly.
The real targets
In the context of a persistence threat of war, informed observers are attempting to assess the military options that an Israeli attack would generate. Many analysts continue to believe that Israel has a very limited capability seriously to damage Iran’s nuclear programme. A detailed assessment in a respected defence journal points to the problems of distance, and Iran’s dispersal and protective hardening of facilities; though it still concludes that “the belief that Iran might be on the cusp of weaponising its nuclear ambitions could nevertheless spur the Israelis into military action” (see Scott Johnson & Emily Chorley, “Studies in pre-emption”, Jane's Defence Weekly, 28 March 2012).
The question of what Israel could do militarily is also explored in a recent report from the Oxford Research Group (ORG), which highlights three elements that tend to be neglected: preparedness, forward operating bases, and targeting options (see The Potential for Military Action Against Israel's Nuclear Facilities, Oxford Research Group [monthly briefing, March 2012]).
In relation to preparedness, the issue is simply that Iran has long been seen as the most important regional threat to Israel; as a result the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), especially the air force, have for years been preparing for a possible war. The IDF’s planning has included the deployment of longer-range versions of the F-15 and F-16 strike-aircraft, more tanker-aircraft, and several types of long-range drone, as well as cruise and ballistic missiles.
With regard to forward operating bases (FOBs), Israel has worked assiduously to develop very good relations with Azerbaijan and with the Kurdish military in northeast Iraq. This gives it the possibility of operating from FOBs very close to the Iranian border. Israel might even get unofficial assistance from the Saudis.
In the matter of targeting, most current analysis concentrates far too much on Iran’s actual nuclear facilities. There is little doubt that Natanz and other sites would be hit, but an Israeli assault would go far wider: it would also place great emphasis on destroying Iran’s knowledge and capability by launching attacks on “advanced training facilities and their staff, especially relevant university centres, as well as research and development centres for both the nuclear and missile programmes” (to cite the ORG report).
The concentration on targeting the intellectual and academic foundations of Iran’s nuclear work, rather than just plant and infrastructure, is also intended to discourage others from replacing the people killed. For the Israeli planners, in other words, people - who they are, how and where they work, where they are trained and what they fear - are just as important as are the final results of what they produce.
Israel has followed the same general pattern on previous occasions. In the early days of Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza in December 2008 - January 2009, the IDF made a priority not of the more difficult task of pinpointing individual paramilitary units but rather of systematically attacking the infrastructure that enabled Hamas to govern and maintain order. Israel also targeted the Islamic University, including its engineering laboratories, and one of its first attacks was on the police academy, where around sixty cadets attending a graduation ceremony were killed.
An earlier precedent was Israel's extensive military action in the West Bank in April 2002. This had the stated aim of curbing suicide-bombers, though its actual purpose was to destroy the Palestine Authority's ability to administer and govern the territory. In the words of an earlier column:
“..(There) has been widespread destruction of offices and facilities of PA ministries and Palestinian non-government organisations. The ministry of local government and the ministry of education in Ramallah have been ransacked by Israeli troops, as has the Palestinian bureau of statistics.
“NGOs engaged in medical support and youth work have seen their offices destroyed. Shopping-centres have been damaged, electricity transmission-lines and water-mains have been destroyed, and thousands of homes have been wrecked or damaged” (see "Israel's strategy: the impotence of arms", 10 April 2002).
The fallout of war
It is important to stress that such actions in war are in no way exclusive to Israel. Indeed, to single out Israel is misleading and perhaps even unfair, since this is how so many conflicts unfold. As the ORG report puts it:
“Generally in war, targeters look much wider than specific targets, at what makes those targets important and how they can be rapidly replaced. Targeting post-attack recovery capabilities is standard practice with emphasis on personnel.”
There is a legion of examples from recent history: in the second world war, in many late-colonial conflicts, and in the actions of paramilitary movements. The nuclear-war planning of the cold-war era was especially notable in terms of attacking post-recovery capabilities. After all, the calculation went, if each side was likely to suffer 50% or even 75% casualties among its entire population, the war would be “won” in ensuing years by the side that could more quickly recover, rebuild (and repopulate). Hence the need to target those abilities as part of the original nuclear attack.
As wars are planned, and once they start, they are all too often subject to a particular logic which goes far beyond the obvious targeting of the other side's military. The United States’s destruction of crops in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s; Nato’s bombing of Serbian factories, power-transmission and even Belgrade’s television centre (in the 1999 war over Kosovo); the Soviet Union’s economic strategy in Afghanistan - all are variants of the targeting mindset.
There is, though, a specific aspect of the risk of war in relation to Israel-Iran that explains why it is necessary to raise this issue in advance. This, again, is the assumption that an Israeli attack on Iran would essentially focus on destroying what might be called “nuclear real-estate” - and entail few civilian casualties. This is highly improbable. Instead, there is a real possibility that an assault will inflict serious casualties - and thus inculcate in Iranians a very strong sense that this is an act of war against their country as a whole.
That sentiment alone will carry its own consequences. The most important is likely to be a high degree of national unity and a rallying around the government of the day (however unpopular it might be in other respects). That in turn has implications for Iran’s probable response - in the weeks, months and perhaps even years that follow. The prospect that would arise, the moment the first bombs are dropped, is of a lengthy, costly, unpredictable and destabilising war.