09.28.11

Iran Blusters but Israel Has the Edge

Iran’s threats to build missiles and send warships off the U.S. coast are sideshow distractions that hide the real balance of power in the Mideast, where Israel is the clear winner, Bruce Riedel explains.

Iran’s bombastic threats to send ships off our coasts and to build more missiles to strike Israel and American bases in the Persian Gulf are intended to hide the real balance of power in the region, which overwhelmingly favors Israel. That imbalance will continue even if and when Iran acquires nuclear capability.

The former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, says Iran won’t get the bomb until at least 2015. In contrast, Israel has had nuclear weapons since the late 1960s and has jealously guarded its monopoly on them in the region. Israel has used force in the past against developing nuclear threats. Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 were the targets of highly effective Israeli airstrikes against developing nuclear-weapons programs. Israel has seriously considered conducting such a strike against Iran and may well do so, especially now that it has special bunker- busting bombs from the U.S.

Estimates of the size of the Israeli arsenal by international think tanks generally concur that Israel has about 100 nuclear weapons, possibly 200. Even under a crash program, Iran won’t achieve that size arsenal for many years, perhaps decades.

Israel also has multiple delivery systems. It has intermediate-range ballistic missiles, the Jerichos, that are capable of reaching any target in Iran. Its fleet of F-15 long-range strike aircraft can also deliver nuclear payloads. Some analysts have suggested that it can also deliver nuclear weapons from its German-made Dolphin submarines using cruise missiles.

Israel will also continue to have conventional military superiority over Iran and the rest of the region. The Israel Defense Forces has a demonstrated qualitative edge over all its potential adversaries in the region, including Iran. The Israeli Air Force has the capability to penetrate air-defense systems with virtual impunity, as it demonstrated in 2007 when it destroyed Syria’s nascent nuclear capability. The IDF’s intelligence and electronic-warfare capabilities are vastly superior to those of its potential rivals.

There are limits to Israel’s conventional capabilities, but those limits should not obscure the underlying reality of Israel’s conventional military superiority over its enemies.

The 2006 Lebanon war and the 2009 Gaza war demonstrated that there are limits to Israel’s conventional capabilities—some self-imposed regarding ground operations to reoccupy territories that Israel does not want to try to govern again—but those limits should not obscure the underlying reality of Israel’s conventional military superiority over its enemies.

Iran, on the other hand, has never fully rebuilt its conventional military from the damage suffered in the Iran-Iraq War. It still relies heavily for air and sea power on equipment purchased by the shah 40 years ago. Moreover, the June 2010 United Nations sanctions, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 (UNSCR 1929), impose a very stringent arms ban on Iran. Virtually all significant weapons systems—tanks, aircraft, naval vessels, missiles, etc.—are banned from being sold or transferred to Iran. Training and technical assistance for such systems is also banned.

In other words, even if Iran wants to try to improve its conventional military capability in the next few years and has the money to do so, the U.N. arms ban will make that close to impossible. Iran does not have the capability to produce state-of-the-art weapons on its own, despite its occasional claims to be self-sufficient. It certainly cannot build a modern air force to compete with the IDF on its own.

Finally, Israel will continue to enjoy the support of the world’s only superpower for the foreseeable future. Assistance from the United States includes roughly $3 billion in aid every year. That is the longest-running financial-assistance program in American history, dating back to the 1973 war. It is never challenged or cut by Congress and permits Israeli planners to do multiyear planning for defense acquisitions with great certitude about what they can afford to acquire.

U.S. assistance is also far more than just financial aid. The Pentagon and Israel engage in constant exchanges of technical cooperation on virtually all elements of the modern battlefield. Missile defense has been at the center of this exchange for more than 20 years now. The United States and Israel also have a robust and dynamic intelligence relationship that helps ensure Israel’s qualitative edge.

American support for Israel comes despite Israel’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Indeed, the United States since 1969 has implicitly supported Israel’s nuclear deterrent by not pressing for NPT signature and providing Israel with high-performance aircraft that are capable of delivering the bomb. Every American president since Richard Nixon has been a supporter of maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge over its potential foes, including U.S. allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Preserving that qualitative edge enjoys broad bipartisan support in the United States. Every president and Congress has been committed to doing so since the 1960s. Iran, in contrast, has no major power providing it with financial help. Its arms relationships with Russia and China have been severed by UNSCR 1929.

Its only military ally is Syria, not exactly a powerhouse. And Syria is now in the midst of a profound domestic crisis. For 30 years Syria and the Assad family have been Iran’s entree into the Arab world and the Levant. If Assad falls, Iran is the biggest loser in the Arab Spring, no matter what happens in Egypt or Bahrain. Hizbullah will be the second-biggest loser. The deputy secretary-general of Hizbullah and one of its founders, Sheik Naim Qassem, wrote in 2007 that Syria is “the cornerstone” of Hizbullah’s survival in the region. While there are differences between Syria and Hizbullah, the relationship is a “necessity” for Hizbullah.

So don’t let the hot air from Tehran confuse the reality on the ground. Iran is a dangerous country, but it is not an existential threat to either Israel or America.