There is only one thing that can prevent an Israeli assault on Iran’s nuclear installations before the US presidential elections—and that, short of an attack by America itself, which is seen as extremely unlikely, is an iron-clad guarantee by President Obama that he will destroy the Iranian installations soon after his prospective re-election if the Iranian do not desist under the impact of the ongoing economic sanctions
Of course, no guarantee is iron-clad; promises can be and often are broken. Still, were Obama to promise Israel, publicly or in writing, that, should he be re-elected, he will unleash the American Air Force and Navy say by March 1, 2013 to destroy the installations and would continue the military campaign, whatever and for as long as it takes, until Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program, then it is likely that Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak would call off the prospective Israeli assault.
In the absence of such a guarantee, Israel is likely to strike before the American elections for two reasons: Netanyahu believes that Obama will find it more difficult to condemn or punish Israel for doing something which Washington has pressured Israel to refrain from, despite the fact that it is a publicly stated American policy goal (to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons); and time is running short, both in terms of Iran’s attainment of its nuclear goals—observers say Iran is 12-18 months away from a bomb—and in terms of the completion of the Fardow nuclear enrichment site, which is under construction deep under a mountain near Qom. Observers believe that that is where Iran intends to mount its final dash towards bomb-making capabilities – meaning the enrichment of its stocks of Uranium from 20 per cent, the current level at which the material is being enriched in the existing major site at Natanz, to 90 per cent-plus, which is what is required for nuclear weaponry.
The debate over the prospective Israeli strike has been raging across Israel’s news media for the past month or so. Given the distances, the dispersal of the Iranian installations over a dozen sites, the fact that many are deep underground, and the existence of Iranian air defenses, most observers believe that Israel can mount a one-time strike that will put back Iran’s program by one to two years, no more. This is one of the reasons that senior Israeli military and intelligence officials—including, according to reports, the heads of military intelligence and the Mossad, and the IDF chief of staff—oppose the strike at the moment, saying that diplomacy, sanctions and Washington must be given more time.
Supporters of the strike argue that there is no time. A similar argument was used by critics of the prospective Israeli strike against Iraq’s nuclear reactor back in 1981 (the critics included then Labor Party head Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president, who reportedly is a major critic of the prospective attack on Iran). But that successful strike actually put paid to Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program, which was never resurrected. The same appears to have happened in Syria, where in 2007 Israeli warplanes destroyed a North Korean-assisted nuclear plant at Deir Zor, apparently designed to produce Plutonium. Israel never officially acknowledged the attack and Syria’s President Assad didn’t respond militarily and desisted from renewing his nuclear program.
Of course, Iran is not Iraq or Syria. The Iranian ayatollahs, to judge by their indifference to the painful sanctions already imposed on their country, appear hell bent on attaining nuclear weaponry, in part, no doubt, in order to deter Western or Israeli attack. (The Israelis, of course, fear that Iran, which has vowed to destroy Israel, will ultimately use the bombs against Tel Aviv and Haifa.) In that sense, they no doubt look to the North Korean experience as a model; despite strong American language, Washington did not dare to take out the North Korean nuclear facilities after it got the bomb.
In the wake of an Israeli assault, the Iranians are likely to strike back—directly, with their own rocket arsenal, and indirectly, using proxies such as Hizbullah, using rockets and terrorist squads to hit Israeli and Jewish targets abroad. The Iranians may also retaliate, using proxies, against American targets in the Middle East or worldwide, arguing that Washington was secretly behind the Israeli strike though publicly calling on Israel to desist. The Iranians can also be expected to rebuild whatever Israel manages to destroy, and as quickly as possible—and they will be driven by a powerful urge to avenge the Israeli strike, making a nuclear war between the two countries all the more likely, should Iran in the end attain nuclear weapons.
But the Israeli calculation is that a an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities will buy time—mainly time in which the international community, led by the US, can mobilize its economic and political resources, and if necessary, its military power to prevent a resurrection of the Iranian nuclear program. Perhaps the spectacle of an Israeli-Iranian conventional exchange, with the prospect of a nuclear war down the road, will galvanize Russia, China and the other countries currently shying away from imposing sanctions against Iran, to join the rest of the international community. Perhaps the Iranian response to the Israeli strike will suck in the United States, which will then unleash a second-round strike that will definitively put an end to the Iranian nuclear program.
But all this is down the road. Meanwhile, the Israeli military seem to be putting the finishing touches to their plans for the Iranian nuclear facilities while perfecting Israel’s own anti-rocket shield, primarily the Arrow and Iron-Dome batteries, and its civil defense organization. Whether President Obama will step in, at this last moment, and persuasively assure Israel that America will do the job, a job it can do far better than Israel, given its military capabilities, and do it in time, before the Iranians cross the nuclear threshold, remains to be seen.
The tragedy in all this is that the international community failed to impose severe sanctions against Iran back in 2000 or 2005. Then, the cumulative effect of several years of such sanctions might have persuaded the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Now it is too late; sanctions will not do the job in time and, indeed, will only energize the Iranians to reach the nuclear finish line as quickly as possible. Which leaves the world only with the military option, Israeli or American—or the prospect of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.