THE QUESTION NOW IS: WHEN WILL ISRAEL ATTACK IRAN?
With the passing of time and without a negotiated solution in sight to suspend Iran's nuclear program, Israeli determination to attack Teheran is everyday more pressing and manifest. Diplomatic pressure, sanctions, open or veiled threats, sabotage, attacks and cybernetic warfare are nothing but the prologue of what could be, in the near future, an Israeli armed attack against Iran.
With the support of the Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, and of extreme right wing parties and politicians such as Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not hidden his true intentions. On August 14th 2012 he has appointed at the Ministry of Internal Defense another interventionist of the likes of Ben Avi Ditcher, former chief of the Shit Bet (General Security Service, the domestic intelligence). The recent creation of a government of national unity and the support obtained from Shaul Mofaz (yet another interventionist) and his Kadima party add to the political majority in favor of an attack, as opposed to those who fear the menaces associated with yet another military venture.
The Israeli PM now has a broad majority at the Knesset allowing him wide discretion on the domestic political front. Furthermore, in August governmental procedures were modified to allow the PM to order a military operation without consulting his government nor the Chief of Staffs.
Nonetheless, there are also several high profile personalities that are against a military attack: the former Chief of Staff (from 2007 until February 2011) Gavriel Ashkenazi, the former head of the Shin Bet (from 2005 until May 2011) Yuval Diskin, the former chief of the Mossad Meir Dagan, the former head of the military intelligence Amos Yadlin, the former advisor Uzi Arad. These are all highly qualified people whom Netanyahu is absolutely not taking into account.
Preparing the population
During January 2012 Israel has carried out a drill simulating a missile attack carried out with radioactive and/or chemical warheads. The exercise, named 'Dark Cloud', aimed at training the population in case of such an attack. The dual menace (chemical or radioactive) meant the threat could come either form Syria or Iran.
In June yet another drill, named 'Turning Point 5', on the scenario of a missile attack coming from nearby (Hamas and Hezbollah) or farther (Iran) hostile forces. Even though these are routine exercises (they have been put in place annually since 2006), this year a particular emphasis was placed on involving the population.
In the mean time, the distribution of anti-gas masks to the population in ongoing (deliveries are at about 70%), pamphlets explaining what behavior to hold in case of an attack are being distributed, foreign embassies have been informed on where to seek refuge, new shelters and underground hospitals are being built, the government has set up an alternative office in Judea (costing 250 million dollars, it can host hundreds of people), an emergency communication system utilizing text messages on mobile phones has been put in place, evacuation plans have been updated and a new warning system capable of calculating in real time the flight path of missiles and of informing the population about the imminent threat is being set up in the Negev.
Besides from the technical preparations, the population is systematically being psychologically prepared for a future attack. The military option is presented as inescapable. During his public remarks, Benjamin Netanyahu is continuous on the menace brought by Iran, Teheran's nuclear threat is compared to the Holocaust, the attack is correlated to the survival of the population. Under this respect, several times the speeches are marked by messianic tones on the destiny of the Israelis and of the Jews.
Ehud Barak also indulges in his Prime Minister's apocalyptic scenarios when he hints to the possibility that an hypothetical Iranian missile response could cause around 500 (even though the report suggests from 500 to 3000) civilian victims in case of a 30 days conflict. This is a psychological strategy whose aim is to make the military option even more imminent by quantifying - ahead of time - the human costs and its duration (this implies that the project is at an advanced stage of implementation). According to rumors published on Israeli newspapers, the daily cost of the operation against Iran has also been estimated: 375 million dollars (of military expenses) and the cost associated with a war time economy (250 million dollars per day).
The military planning
Israel is also carrying out a series of initiatives and prearrangements that postulate a forthcoming military venture: missile batteries readied for both offensive and defensive purposes ("Iron Dome" and the "Homa" system), acquisition of depth bombs and warheads (to be mounted on "Jericho" missiles) to strike underground installations, the configuration of the "Heron" drones to carry electronic jamming systems, the continuous soil attack drills by the Israeli air force, the acquisition of in flight fuel airplanes, drills on the use of carbon fiber ammunition that will put the Iranian network and electric grid out of service, the purchase and use of electronic weapons, the use of spy satellites ("Ofeq", "Tecsar" "Blue and White"), the preparation - with German help - of nuclear warheads for the Dolphin submarines.
Regardless of all of this, Israel also needs more American support: the use of the radars located in Qatar, other technological devices to reach the targets in a simulated way, access to the communications that are wiretapped in the Gulf, continuous and unfiltered access to intelligence, support from the drones that fly over Iran.
The relationship with the United States
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu's biggest problem are the United States. President Barack Obama is particularly hostile to yet another war whose outcome is uncertain both on the military front and on the stability of an entire region. The latest wave of resentment against the United States in several Muslim countries caused by the blasphemous movie on Prophet Mohamed is definitely an alarm bell of an anti-American social tension that could burst in case of an attack in which Washington sided with Tel Aviv.
Israel would want the U.S. to strike a red line with a deadline beyond which, in the absence of tangible results, Iranian nuclear infrastructure will automatically be attacked. A concession Washington will not grant at this stage, especially during campaign for the presidential election. Netanyahu, whose provocative attitude has not earned him the sympathy of Barack Obama (and not only him since former French president Sarkozy labelled the Israeli PM as a "liar"), has tried to insert, better said interfere, in the U.S. electoral campaign the Iranian nuclear issue and the ties with the most important ally in the Middle East. The Democratic party has had to quickly correct its electoral platform where it had forgotten to mention Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu has obviously obtained Republican support (candidate Mitt Romney visited Israel in July, while Obama never has. Both Romney and Netanyahu know each other as they have worked for the same company in the past) and has lobbied in favor of Romney in the Jewish community. This has once again worsened the inter-personal relationship with President Obama who also charges Israeli intransigence for the lack of progress in the negotiations with the Palestinians.
The direct consequence of such a situation is that the planned meeting between Netanyahu and Obama at the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York will not take place. The Israeli PM will only meet the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. In case of a second Obama term, the gap between Israel and the United States could widen even further.
Another consequence is that, in the planned joint Israeli-US exercise in October (the "Austere Challenge 2"), the American contingent will be strongly down sized (1500 men instead of 5000, 1 battle cruiser instead of 2, the anti-missile Patriot system will probably come without US support personnel). The drill that should have highlighted the joint effort against Iran, will instead show the disagreement between the two allies.
All these signs - at least for now - against an attack do not seem to divert Benjamin Netanyahu from continuing along the path of his military ambitions. Recently there has been an argument between the US Ambassador in Tel Aviv, Dan Shapiro, and the Israeli PM when he accused the United States of lack of compliance with respect to Iran's nuclear programme. Netanyahu's provocations continue to strongly worry the Americans in the fear of an Israeli coup de theatre.
CIA boss Petraeus has visited Israel in early September to meet with his Israeli counterparts, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has phoned Benjamin Netanyahu to convince him to leave more room for diplomacy and sanctions, the US Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey (also recently in Israel) has said in late August that the United States will not be part of an Israeli attack against Iran. On the other hand, the Israeli PM has publicly declared that as long as the safeguard of Israel is concerned, there are no moral obligations.
When could the attack be carried out?
Setting the date for the attacks basically depends on two sets of assessments: of a military nature (when will the Iranian program be close to completion) and of political opportunity.
Regarding the first factor, Israel has recently released US intelligence documents that spell out the progress of the Iranian nuclear program. Besides from the impropriety of such a behavior and the consequent charge of manipulating information, the news is that the Iranians are going ahead with acquiring the atomic bomb. According to Israeli experts, Iran should reach by October what is technically speaking the point of no return. From that moment onwards - having over 200 kg of uranium enriched at 20% - a nuclear bomb could be obtained within a few weeks (5 to 7). From there the Iranians would need more time to install the nuclear warheads on the "Shebab 3" missiles; these are medium range warheads (1280 km) that have been improved to reach almost 2000 km.
On the basis of this data, the Israelis can trace the afore mentioned "red line", the event postulating an armed intervention. Another element that will have to be taken into account has been recently stated by former Mossad chief, Efran Halevyal: for climatic and meteorological reasons Israel is against attacks during winter. If we put all of this together we could forecast an attack over the next 2 or 3 months. Past Israeli operations against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear sites all took place in September and this year the Yom Kippur will end on September 26.
But, as mentioned before, there is also a political assessment to be made. Here the relationship with the United States comes into play. Should the attack be carried out before the US presidential elections on November 6th and with their open disapproval, or should Israel wait for the new president elect? But if the next President will still be Obama, what does Netanyahu have to gain from waiting if his counterpart has no sympathy for him? The worst case scenario would be an attack before the elections and a re-election of Obama. In this case the lack of sympathy could turn into hostility.
The wider regional context also has to be taken into account. The rise of the so called Arab Spring has created great social instability. Israel has lost the uncritical support of Mubarak's Egypt and now has a difficult relationship with the new president, Mohamed Morsi. The latter was recently in Teheran for the meeting of the non-aligned States (and the respective secret services have also recently been in touch). The Arab Spring has paved the way for Islamic majorities in several nations; the fight against Israel acts as their main glue. Syria is sliding down a similar path, Turkey is not the ally is once was, the Palestinians are more and more restless because of useless negotiations. These are all situations that create in Israel a sense of isolation and encirclement and thus of danger. A feeling that could suggest prudence, but that can also lead to a show of strength.
How the attack could take place
Israel is not new to sudden attacks against nuclear sites in nearby countries. It did so in September 1980 against the Osiraq structures in Iraq (Operation "Babilon") and, more recently, in September 2007 against the Syrian nuclear site of Deir el Zor (operation "Orchard"). The Iraqi operation had a similar scenario if we think of Iran: a far away target needing the passage over other countries with all the limitations and precautions such an act implies.
Firstly, today just as back then, the operation was preceded by a series of covert operations (the destruction in France of equipment bound for Iraq, the elimination of people associated with the Iraqi nuclear program like the Egyptian scientist Yehia al Mashad, acts of sabotage, menaces against foreign technicians and companies involved in the project). The only difference between now and the past is the use of cyber warfare, not conceivable in those times. So no spyware nor malware like Flame, Stuxnet, Duqu or Stars. The tools to block the command and control systems have also changed. In the same way, the then decision to attack Iraq taken by PM Begin and Ariel Sharon was opposed by several politicians (Dayan, Ezer Weizman, Yagzel Yadin) who were not taken into account.
In 1980 the distance to the target was about 1600 km and this implied the violation of both Jordanian and Saudi air space and the need for in flight refueling for the fighter jets. During the attack the Israelis employed eight F-16As (armed with Mark-84 missiles) and six F-15s for cover. A total of 14 airplanes.
To go past Jordanian and Saudi air space, the Israeli pilots talked in Arabic with a Saudi accent with the different control towers while crossing Jordan (thus implying they were Saudis who had crossed over in the neighboring country) and then, the other way around, they employed Jordanian language (including radio signals and frequencies) to confound the Saudis.
The attack was carried out on a Sunday to avoid the potential presence of foreign technicians (while for Iran a Friday could suit the purpose because surveillance will be diminished).
Once inside the Iraqi air space, the F-16As flew hedgehopping towards their target to avoid being intercepted by radars or anti-aircraft defense, while the F-15s scattered all over the enemy's air space to create confusion. The attack lasted around 2 minutes, 8 missiles (out of the 16 launched) hit the structure, after that the Israeli fighter jets returned to their bases flying at a high altitude.
In the presumable next attack, Israel will face the same problems: not getting identified during the trip to the target (even though Saudi Arabia could be available to turning a blind eye), inflight refueling (with the avail of air tankers or the use of bigger tanks that could affect the handling of the airplanes).
There are also other major issues. The biggest one is that this time the targets are spread across several structures. There are basically two alternatives: a surgical operation against those sites that can delay the Iranian nuclear program the most, or the massive use of fighter jets. The first option seems more plausible.
Another challenge is that some of the sites are underground and will require depth bombs whose impact cannot be verified.
To counterbalance the Iranian reaction, during the attack the Israelis will need to rely on huge fire power that could be provided by the stationing of its submarines in the Gulf. Can this be done without the Iranians knowing?
The aerial attack against Osiraq in 1980 was carried out whilst Iraq was busy with the war against Iran. In this case the surprise factor has little value. The Iranians know that Israel wants to attack, they have already set up their countermeasures and, above all, have a military apparatus worthy of respect. To avoid the collapse of the command and control system the military apparatus has been decentralized and divided into 31 districts, each one of them with its own operative autonomy.
Technology will have an impact on how the attack will be carried out. The two Gulf Wars were preceded by a jamming of the communication systems, by the subsequent destruction of the command and control systems, by a black out of the electricity network, by the destruction of the most important military missile sites and their warehouses. Without such precautions, the risk of both a fighter jet being intercepted and taken down by the anti-craft defense and a missile response are both very high. In other words, an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear sites will require a series of action typical of total war.
At this point we should ask ourselves whether such a complex operation can be carried out by Israel alone without the support or the coordination with the United States.
A predictable Israeli attack against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure raises a series of issues and consequently a series of responses.
Even though reluctant and possibly not consentient, in case of a conflict the United States will be forced to help Israel. But at this point the problem is to predict Teheran's reaction: limited to a launch of missiles against Israel? A wider range of targets across other Gulf countries and their oil infrastructures (during 2011 Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman have trebled their purchase of American weapons)? The Hormuz Strait will be mined or blocked by Iran thus throttling the export of oil? The Hezbollah (who own an estimated 1600 missiles) will open a new armed front against Israel (Nasrallah has threatened to strike also in other countries)? Will Hamas do the same? And will Egypt block the flux of oil from the Sinai to Israel? What will happen in the pseudo-theocracies that have emerged following the Arab Spring?
There are several scenarios that have to be evaluated. The common denominator is a region vital for Western economic interests and that could soon flare up. And since we're talking about an operation that will not solve the issue, but rather slow down and not block the Iranian nuclear program, is the game worth the trouble?
We should also raise a series of collateral issues: a worsening of the global economic recession, oil supplies, the stability of the countries in the Persian Gulf, a potential Sunni-Shiite alliance against both the US and the Israelis, the spreading of Al Qaeda's terrorists and their mingling with Salafist groups, the backlashes on Afghanistan.
Both sharing the concern of the threat posed by Iran owning nuclear weapons, the US and Israel differ in the solution to the problem: a massive military operation the latter, sanctions + diplomacy + potential military operation is instead the solution proposed in Washington. Tel Aviv has made Iran a question of survival (often confounded with the concept of military supremacy), whilst the US has put before a geo-strategic approach, especially now that the muslim world is ripe with anti-American feelings.
In this moment both stances seem to have generated a stall. The only signal sent by Washington was a large naval deployment in the Gulf for the drill "International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2012" involving several countries in the region and that will last until the end of September. This is surely a warning to Teheran, but nothing more. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is dedicating his efforts to appearing on major American broadcasters giving interviews about the Iranian menace, thus trying to get US public opinion on his side. The date of the attack will be set on the basis of the outcome of the struggle between these two antithetical visions of the Iranian issue.