The voices in Washington calling for a military strike on Iranian nuclear plants are growing in number and strength. The cautious attitude of the Barack Obama administration itself in relation to such a course means that direct military action by the United States itself remains on balance unlikely (see Joe Klein, "An Attack on Iran: Back on the Table", Time, 15 July 2010). But current trends in the middle east suggest that the prospect of Israeli action against Iran in the next few months is coming closer (see "Israel vs Iran: the risk of war", 11 June 2010).
These include oft-repeated reports that Iran is rearming Hizbollah in southern Lebanon, and that Syria is supplying Hizbollah with some of its Iranian-made M-600 ballistic-missiles. The M-600 is a solid-fuel missile with a range stretching over much of Israel - a much more potent weapon than those fired in the Israel-Lebanon war of July-August 2006 (see Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, “The Hizbollah project: last war, next war”, 13 August 2009)
Israel’s current concern over a resumption of conflict with Hizbollah, however, is overshadowed by its analysis of the benefits, costs and consequences of an attempt to strike a decisive blow against Iran. Binyamin Netanyahu, concluding his visit to the United States with an interview on Fox News, described Iran as “the ultimate terrorist threat” and said that for Iran to think it can maintain its nuclear ambitions would be a mistake.
Here, the Israeli prime minister expresses by implication two sentiments that are entrenched across much of Israel’s political opinion. The first is that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively military, and that it represents an existential threat to Israel. The country’s own powerful nuclear arsenal, first developed in the late 1950s, has little or no place in this analysis.
The second is that the United States - notwithstanding the Washington chorus - cannot be relied on to constrain Iranian nuclear ambitions by force; at some stage Israel will have to go it alone (see Jim Lobe “Hawks Sharpen Claws for Iran Strike”, Asia Times/IPS, 12 July 2010).
This current moment raises three vital questions for anyone concerned with security and stability in the middle east: whether Israel has the military capability to launch an effective strike on Iran, what form military action would take, and what Iran’s reaction would be.
The Israeli capability
A new report published by the Oxford Research Group (ORG) - Military Action Against Iran: Impact and Effects (15 July 2010) - which seeks to clarify these issues and offer recommendations. Its starting-point is that Israel in the past few years has transformed its ability to undertake air-strikes across great distances - and certainly as far from its territory as Iran. It has also worked diligently to build relations with two states bordering Iran - Azerbaijan to the north, and the Kurdish region of Iraq to the west; both might prove useful in the event of action against Iran.
The extensive and sophisticated equipment Israel now possesses includes: over 120 long-range F-15I and F-16I strike-aircraft, purchased from the United States; an expanded and upgraded fleet of tanker-aircraft; a large fleet of drones, some capable of being armed with weapons; bunker-busting bombs that can be attached to its planes; medium-range ballistic-missiles, and (probably) submarine-launched cruise-missiles.
These capabilities mean that Israel can now undertake military action against Iran to an extent that even in 2006 would have been impossible (see “Israel’s shadow over Iran”, 14 January 2010). Moreover, it can do so without overflying Iraq, thus avoiding direct infringement of United States-controlled air-space and the direct implication of Washington in the operation.
The US would know almost at once that an Israeli attack was underway, and the widespread use of its manufactured weapons would be noted across the region; but an ability to deny close involvement, including to its own and other western publics, would be welcome. This is even more so since the Israeli action will involve far more than “a war against real-estate”: attacks on specific nuclear facilities such as the uranium-enrichment centres at Natanz, the uranium-processing plant near Esfahan, and the new Arak research-reactor.
An Israeli security perspective, for example, is concerned almost as much with Iran’s development of medium-range solid-fuel missiles as with its nuclear projects; so missile-research, development and production sites would be key targets. Moreover, the people who design, develop and build the nuclear and missile programmes - and the facilities that train these specialists - are as significant as the physical infrastructure; so housing-complexes around nuclear and missile plants, key research-centres, factories, and even university departments training scientists and engineers would also be in the line of fire.
In practice, then, military action will be much more generic than specific; it will certainly involve raids in and around greater Tehran; and it will be seen as more an act of war against the country as a whole than a limited dropping of bombs in remote locations.
The Iranian calculation
Many western Gulf states might, at elite level, privately welcome Israeli action against Iran. Their substantial Shi’a minorities, and indeed a majority of Arabs across the region, will take a very different view. Many, Shi’a and Sunni alike, will be bitterly opposed to what they see as another attack by a powerful western state on a Muslim country and people.
The key variable, however, is the attitude of the Iranian state itself to an Israeli attack. In domestic terms, the state would have great freedom of manoeuvre: an Israeli raid would have the automatic political impact of galvanising support for the hitherto unpopular Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration, as citizens rally against a concrete external threat. Any visible opposition would be marginalised, and the “green movement” pressed further onto the defensive.
At the same time, a regime emboldened by becoming the focus of nationalist defiance would not necessarily (so the Oxford Research Group report argues) undertake an immediate military (or paramilitary) response. True, it might make an attempt to fire some missiles at Israel, but mainly as a symbolic gesture whose impact would be mainly psychological. Much more likely would be an early announcement of Tehran’s formal withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT); a cessation of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) inspection-regime (after the obligatory ninety-day notice period); and a swift attempt to develop a nuclear deterrent.
In the shorter term, it is possible too that Iran might initially refrain from vigorous reactions in order to maximise its influence, harvest the moral credit of the assaulted, and devote its energies to the intensive rebuilding of its nuclear and missile capabilities. This could mean holding fire against American targets in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even taking steps to avoid a Hizbollah-Israel clash until the time were more ripe for Tehran.
But Iran will also be thinking long-term. It is certain that the regime has anticipated a conflict occurring at some stage, calibrated its many aspects, and prepared plans to cope with the aftermath - including the construction of deeply-buried military facilities that can be quickly operationalised (see William J. Broad, “Iran Shielding Its Nuclear Efforts in Maze of Tunnels”, New York Times, 6 January 2010).
The true impact of military action against Iran begins to become visible here - namely, that once it is launched, the consequences are multiple and uncontrollable.
The global responsibility
Even a major Israeli attack would be inconclusive. Israel would within months need to start bombing again in order to complete an unfinished job, and at that stage Iran would likely be most ready to consider wider responses. They include provoking a worldwide oil crisis; its ability to disrupt oil exports from the Gulf suggests that this would not be difficult. The economic consequences would be formidable (see “Asymmetric war: Iran and the new normal”, 8 July 2010).
Military Action Against Iran: Impact and Effects concludes that a war to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions will “lead to sustained conflict and regional instability”, and that it is “unlikely to prevent the eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran and might even encourage it.” Thus, “military action against Iran should be ruled out as a means of responding to its possible nuclear ambitions.”
The crisis sparked by an Israeli assault on Iran could indeed become at least as destructive as have been the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. The fact that the United States and Israel itself are using an undefined threat of military action to reinforce diplomatic pressure on Tehran actually makes other approaches more difficult. This predicament has to be faced, and innovative thinking needed soon, if the region and the world are to avoid catastrophe.