It is often said that in war the simple becomes difficult and the difficult becomes impossible. In the nineteenth century the Prussian military thinker Carl Von Clausewitz, identified this principle as friction. The use of a physicist’s terminology underlines how much a plan, as well prepared and simple it may be, is comparable to a physical object and once put into action, seen as movement, it will inevitably be countered by an innumerable amount of obstacles which will make the overall advance way more laborious than previously planned.
Such a reality is essential when pondering the present surge in tensions between the US-Israeli partnership and the Islamic Republic of Iran. When considering the last twenty years of preemptive strikes against illegal and clandestine nuclear reactors, one is forced to conclude that such actions were successful and did not produce any kind of counter-attack. In 1981 Israel destroyed the partially damaged Iraqi reactor in Osirak and in 2007 a similar action was undertaken against the growing Syrian nuclear programme. These events were carried out through single strikes and did not result in any loss to the Israelis.
The power of friction remained limited as the superior armaments and the well-trained pilots of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) provided the Jewish State with the element of surprise and a major qualitative edge.
Concerning the possibility of the current Iranian development of a nuclear weapon, a complex set of obstacles would make any Israeli-American plan a much more complex operation. Not only would the IAF need to strike a number of scattered and well protected targets but the effectiveness of such a mission would remain limited and difficult to assess in the short term. From an Israeli perspective, a military operation against the Iranian nuclear programme would subject any tactical plan to unprecedented friction. In the event of a military strike against Teheran’s nuclear plans, the first difficulty would lie in defining the objective of the enemy. If the political objective were a limited one - slowing if not stopping the nuclear programme - the target could only be the core Iranian nuclear infrastructure. Even in a quick strike not exceeding five days' duration, the objective could well be more ambitious. Israel may aim at disrupting any Iranian possibility to respond, thus the ‘enemy’ would change. From the nuclear programme infrastructure the target would become a larger one, a set of command and control targets and other Iranian-related regional assets.
Regardless of the political objective given to the strike, all the ‘usual suspects’ would pose a direct threat to the Jewish State. Speculations of a possible retaliation by Hezbollah and Hamas have increased. Mixed reports indicate that the leadership of both movements may not have adopted a clear cut policy in the event of a strike against the Iranian nuclear programme. A preemptive attack may also trigger a limited response by the Syrian conventional forces or paramilitary units, even if such an event appears unlikely due to the current Syrian domestic crisis.
Aside from these already deeply analyzed possibilities, a strategic issue is rising for the Jewish State: as international pressure is growing and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is forcefully exposed, the Islamic Republic may take a first aggressive step to limit Israel’s capabilities. In this case, the ‘enemy’ would dictate the Jewish State’s tempo and ability to manoeuvre. A number of scenarios may be envisioned, scenarios through which Iran may push Israel to refocus its military attention.
On one hand, Iran may be encouraged to use its regional proxies to clamp down on Israeli Defense capabilities. A Hamas, or at least Hamas backed, rocket barrage against Israeli cities, sustained over a period of 5 to 8 days, may push the Israeli government to respond by an operation with modalities similar to Cast Lead. In this case, a major fraction of the Israeli Air Force would be used to suppress targets over the Gaza strip while ground forces and intelligence would be deployed to that area. Apart from units directly used in the theatre of operations, additional troops would need to be stationed on the Lebanese and Syrian borders and in the Palestinian territories to prepare for the eventuality of an escalation. A similar scenario may be envisioned if the Lebanese Hezbollah would repeat an aggression similar to the one of summer 2006. This is highly unlikely as it would prove to be too costly in political capital for the Hezbollah; nevertheless the Israeli political and military establishments cannot underestimate this risk.
Covert and unconventional operations are a second set of tools which Teheran may use to curb Israeli capabilities to launch an airstrike against its nuclear infrastructure. A series of bombings against Israeli soft targets (i.e.: embassies, cultural centers, synagogues etc. …) and strategic lines of supplies may create a climate of tensions which would push Israelis to react and would consequently deprive the Jewish State of the freedom of action it would need to mount a swift surprise attack against Iran. In addition to that, a series of cyber attacks against key economic and military strategic infrastructures would heavily impact Israel’s possibility to mount a major operation against the Iranian nuclear programme.
While planning a military strike over Iran, Israel and its partners do not only have to consider the achievability of such an effort on the tactical and operational side. The risks preceding an actual preemptive attack play a major part in the friction any plan would experience. What many call a bluff-game by the Israelis and the Americans in regard to the use of force may result in an Iranian aggression. If Teheran feels seriously threatened it may try to take action aiming at impeding Israel’s freedom. When entering a mentality of conflict all actors must keep in mind that ‘the enemy always gets a vote’. It is often said that no plan survives the first bullet. In this case, apart from the friction deriving from well known operational difficulties, a long diplomatic stand off could lead to a de facto situation similar to the drôle de guerre. Both governments have adopted a belligerent mentality and the present period of attrition may push Iran to strike first through conventional means or the use of its regional proxies.