By Richard T. Sale, author of Clinton’s Secret Wars
For months, there have been rumors of a strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The propaganda build-up is very similar to that directed against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2002. In both cases, an isolated state with limited military and physical resources is depicted as a horror threatens to end the survival of the world, except, of course, that Saddam Hussein's WMD didn’t exist.
According to several U.S. analysts like Steven Heydeman, a perceptive commentator for Foreign Affairs, the message emanating from Israel and its right-wing U.S. supporters, is that the road to Jerusalem and an Arab-Israeli peace leads through Iran. Prime Minister Benhamin Netanyahu contends that since Iran’s support of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza means permanent hostiity to Israel's existence,the only way to make an Israeli-Palestinian peace possible is to use brute force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability. As a result, Iran is incessantly depicted by Israel’s right-wing as the seat of all the world’s evil and calls during the last few weeks for a joint U.S.-Israel strike against Iran have reached a crescendo of frantic anxiety.
Israel’s rationale for a strike is solidly rooted in its past. Avner Cohen, a first rate analyst of Israel’s nuclear and defense programs, wrote recently that the day after the bombing of the Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin exclaimed that the Osirak attack meant installing a new strategic doctrine that said that “Israel would do its utmost, including risking starting a war, in order to prevent hostile states in the region from obtaining nuclear arms.” Behind this statement lurked Begin’s fear of new Holocaust of Israel’s Jews.
Israel adopted the so called Osirak doctrine, as if “it were holy writ,” said Cohen. But what the Israeli public in 1981 did not know was that throughout the operation, Begin hadn’t correctly understood his own intelligence, plus top Israeli security officials - including the heads of army intelligence, the Mossad and the director general of the atomic energy commission – had stridently opposed the attack. The obdurate Begin launched it anyway.
In the past, the United States had lead in confronting Iran. For years, the United States Air Force has had “Project Checkmate,” a secret, strategic planning group tasked with running detailed contingency scenarios for a possible U.S. attack Iran. It is part of CENTCOM and consists of 20-30 top air force officers and defense and cyber experts with ready access to the White House, the CIA, DIA and other government agencies.
Time changed this. During the past few years, it was Israel who increasingly sought to launch a preemptive strike on Tehran with the United States assigned a subsidiary role. As one former US official with personal knowledge of the situation said that all through the summer: “Israel wanted to start something and drag us in.”
This correspondent first heard of the threats of a preemptive Israeli strike as early as last May when reports surfaced of classified DOD drills were being conducted in support of an Israeli attack on Iran. All summer long, the drills continued supervised by teams of senior CIA and DIA officials who were personally opposed to any such attack.
Last spring, then Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who had a fixed and determined will, resisted the very idea of such an attack. When he once said that, “Any country who invaded another ought to have his head examined,” there were many U.S. officials who believed it was said of Israel.
Nevertheless, tensions continued to increase.
In August, after Gates retired, there were rumors that Israel would attack after Adm. Mike Mullins, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired in September. After Mullins stepped down, President Obama sent the new Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to Israel to argue that an attack would not succeed in its aims and attempted to get a commitment from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu not to strike Iran without warning. Several sources said that Panetta failed to get that pledge.
And Israeli attempts at intimidating kept on. Within the last two months, there appeared numerous accounts portraying Israel’s military capability as invincible. Only last month, Israel fired its new long-range Jericho III missile able to hit Iran, (a weapon capable of being launched from a submarine,) and its air force conducted a joint exercise with the Italian Air Force over Sardinia, covering an area of 800 kilometers, making clear that Israel could conduct a deadly, long-range strike. A recent article by Daily Best correspondent Eli Lake, boasted that Israel’s new cyber weapons would be able to pierce and disable Iran’s air defense forces, foil Iran’s air defenses, disrupt Iran’s electrical grid, jam the frequencies of responders, and collapse its software networks. The comedian George Carlin once called these activities “prick waving.”
The boasts of Tel Aviv’s invincibility prompted Professor Paul Williams of the National Defense University, to comment to me, “The Israelis are not invincible. Pride goes before the fall.”
Could Israel Do It?
According to our best sources, the war would begin without warning. Israel would fall silent, as it did before the Osirak strike in 1981. The attack would utilize three Israeli strike units: its aircraft, its missiles, and cruise missiles launched from its three diesel subs. However, the most important strategic element would be Israel’s Air Force.
In the words of former senior US intelligence and Mideast experts, the most highly-regarded scenario would involve a strike package of 70-80 aircraft that would fly up to the corner of the Mediterranean, adjoining northern Syria and southeastern Turkey. There the strike planes would top off, then fly east over southern Turkey, infuriating the Turks, but who probably would not hoot the planes down. After hitting their targets in Iran, and realizing that hostile Turks would now be in the air, the Israeli planes would be in peril. With the need for fuel becoming more acute with each passing minute, Israel’s aircraft “would barrel straight through Iraqi and Jordanian airspace in a direct line for home,” in the words of one U.S. expert source.
Thanks to U.S. pressure, the Iraqis would not engage the aircraft either, and the Jordanians, much as they did back in June 1981 during the Osirak operation, would scramble its air force belatedly and without any real desire to engage, fearing that an encounter could result in them losing most of their air force.
What would Iran’s Reaction be?
The 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War (called the Second Lebanon War in Israel) was an attempt by Israel at eliminating the MAD counter-force in Lebanon. It was an attempt that failed. According to Lord Elgin, a British weapons consultant for British Aerospace, Iran had purchased and supplied to Hezbollah), a large number of very nasty, relatively low cost Russian AT-14 Kornet solid fuel anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), and the Iranian-trained Hezbollah commandos dug in massive numbers of these in concrete bunkers and firing positions. According to former DOD officials, after over 50 under powered and lightly armored Merkava main battle tanks were hit, and after Israel’s American-made warplanes and pinpoint weapons proved ineffective, failure stared Tel Aviv in the face. Either Israeli had to use neutron bombs and deploy a large number of Israeli soldiers to remove the Hezbollah threat or it could declare peace. Israel declared peace.
In the case of an attack on Iran, Israel has a vast array of weapons including neutron bombs, nuclear weapons, and fuel air explosive (FAE) bombs. But if Israel used an FAE weapon in an attack, Iran and its allies in Lebanon would fire thousand upon thousands of its scud missiles armed with high explosive (HE) warheads “at every Israeli population center down as far as Tel Aviv,” according to one former senior DOD analyst.
The Syrians, using larger and more actively guided missiles, could shower Israel with high explosive warheads (or even WMD payloads) while Israel would attempt to use its Green Pine radar system, and a combination of U.S. and Israeli anti-missile missiles, to shoot down these salvos. DOD analysts told this reporter that Israel in the beginning would have good success in knocking down many incoming missiles, but the sheer number of incoming missiles would “totally overload all any defensive measures.”
A former US intelligence official, with direct knowledge of Israel’s attack plans, emphasized: “The Israelis have no defense against this. Israel has a massive disincentive against the use of any kind of nuclear weapon. Israel has only two population centers and this attack would finish them.”
The last part of the statement deserves notice. According to Rand Corp war-gamers like Austin Long and Anshel Pfeffer, an attack by Israel on Iran would succeed. “The Israeli Air Force has conducted training missions with simulated operations as far as Gibraltar at the western edge of the Mediterranean, which indicates it could effectively organize a very large long-range strike.”
This is directly contradicted by serving and former U.S. military and intelligence officials. First they pointed out that the Israeli-Italian Air Force joint mission covered “very small distances,” in the words of one. These same sources conclude that Israel’s strike against Iran would not be “crushingly decisive” chiefly because the bulk of Israel’s Air Force could not participate, mainly because of “limitations relating to certain types of aircraft trawling long distances and Israel’s limited aerial tanker capacity,” in the words of another analyst.
A former senior DOD official, with firsthand knowledge of Israel’s attack plains said that Pfeffer’s estimate “ignores all the space time considerations, Iranian air defense, Israel’s fuel limitation, etc.” another US official said “Israel would have huge losses from fuel starvation.”
There appear to be three major targets in Israel’s strike plan: the uranium-conversion facility at Esfahan, the fuel-enrichment plant at Natanz, and the heavy-water production plant and heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak. Even if Israelis Air Force reached their targets, there being deep underground would make them hard to hit. “It would take thousands of sorties,” said a former senior Pentagon official. And given the range, the Israeli planes couldn’t stay at the area for very long. ‘”The Israelis have no idea of the scale and complexity of this kind of operation,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official.
But American resistance to any Israeli strike spiked recently when two senior US military leaders bridled at the scheme. Only a few days ago, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and CENTCOM chief Gen. James Mattis (who commanded the battle of Falllujah in 2004) complained to President Obama about his seeming lack of firmness in letting Netanyahu know the “lay of the land” – how deeply the U.S. military was opposed to a strike by Tel Aviv. The president’s reply was not what the generals expected. Sources close to the exchange say that Obama said that he “had no say over Israel” because “it is a sovereign country.”
One can understand the generals’ bluntness and anxiety. Any strike by Israel would place in peril all the US military personnel and assets spread throughout the Persian Gulf. U.S. analysts Joseph Gerson and Bruce Birchard say that: “Two thirds of the Defense budget is targeted at the Middle East.” The Persian Gulf is the keystone of the world oil market and any instability could weaken the already faltering world economy.
U.S. assets in the region are immense. The U.S. Sixth Fleet polices the Mediterranean keeping a keen eye on Syria using bases in Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece and Turkey. The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 set up a whole string of support bases that serve that Central Command, including facilities for transit, refueling, resupply of naval forces, maintenance of equipment ,storage of fuel and supplies and communication links. One of the most important of these bases is Diego Garcia.
The Fifth Fleet stationed at Bahrain, but U.S. forces are also in Saudi Arabia and Oman, and in other GCC countries like Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – who bought US weapons costing $22 billion from 2005 to 2009. The Saudis alone have a current deal for $60 billion pending.
A surprise attack by Israel would put in peril all these assets, and Gens.’ Dempsey and Mattis warned Obama that it would take 45 to 90 days to ramp up a force to defend the region if Israel attacks, according to serving Defense sources,
Even in Israel, the Begin doctrine no longer holds dominion. The debate for and against an Iran war has turned into a catfight “alive and spitting, sharp in tooth and claw,” as a poet said. The country’s intelligence officials, like ours, had dead set against any war. The former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, who made headlines last January when he resigned after calling any preemptive strike by Israel, “insane," said recently that he believed it is Israel’s duty to prevent any military attack a view held by most American Jews.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect about the incessant calls for an Israeli strike was the fact that the most strident hawks, both U.S. and Israeli, appeared to see war as something abstract, a pin in your opponent’s map. But any war gives license not only to the righteous but to the avid, the brutal and criminal and any war ignores the fact that war means the death of helpless and innocent people.
Thankfully, this latter view seems be seizing new ground and gaining new strength in both Israel and America. Richard Sale