More talk about a possible Israeli strike on Iran

Jul 27, 2010
 By Anna Newby

If Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear program, the attack would be, arguably, highly-anticipated. In recent weeks, Israel’s consideration of a military option against Iran has been widely discussed in policy and academic circles.

According to a Monday story by The Australian, an Israeli attack on Iran is “almost certain.” Last Friday, the L.A. Times reported that “recent polls show most Americans would support an Israeli strike to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.” And Israel’s Channel 2 television last week made a special broadcast outlining a variety of possible strike scenarios against Iran, detailing what airspace Israeli planes would use and where they would refuel.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, former CIA head Michael Hayden commented that a US military strike on Iran has become more likely as the country’s nuclear program has continued to develop. In light of this, Hayden said, the military option “may not be the worst of all possible outcomes.” On Monday, 21 members of the Tea Party caucus also formally endorsed Israel’s right to attack Iran’s nuclear program.

And today, Reuters reported that President Ahmadinejad recently told Press TV that he expects the U.S. to attack "at least two countries" in the Middle East in the next three months. Without specifying particular intelligence, Ahmadinejad said Iran had "very precise information that the Americans have hatched a plot, according to which they to wage a psychological war against Iran."

Amidst the frenzy, last Thursday, the London-based Oxford Research Group released a thoughtful new report on the subject, concluding that

the consequences of a military attack on Iran are so serious that they should not be encouraged in any shape or form. However difficult, other ways must be found to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.

The report warns that a military strike would lead to sustained regional conflict and instability would “would be unlikely to prevent the eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran and might even encourage it.”

The report, entitled “Military Action Against Iran: Impact and Effects,” was authored by Paul Rogers of the University of Bradford (and a Global Security Consultant to Oxford Research Group). It details the relevant political and military contexts of the U.S., Israel, and Iran, respectively. Rogers focuses specifically on Israel’s potential for action against Iran, arguing that the Obama administration’s preference for negotiations and sanctions make U.S. military action against Iran unlikely. In contrast, he argues that the likelihood of an Israeli attack has increased in conjunction with the acquisition of U.S.-built long-range strike aircraft, improvements in tanker aircraft, the deployment of long-range drones, and the probable cooperation of Azerbaijan in providing Israel access to military facilities. Also contributing to the likelihood of an attack is that much of the Israeli political elite considers Iran’s nuclear program to be an existential threat to Israel – despite the latter’s own nuclear forces – and supports a military strike to against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. The report states: “[a]lthough contingency war plans for strikes on Iran may exist within US Central Command, the greater current risk is of an Israeli action.” While an Israeli attack may not have the express permission of U.S. leaders, Rogers assumes that Israel would act with the tacit support of the United States.

Another reality that this report highlights is that an attack on the Iranian nuclear program would differ substantially from the 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. While the latter was not a wide-ranging strike, an Israeli strike against Iran would probably target not only facilities, but people and centers technical expertise (at universities and research centers, for example). The Iranian nuclear program is dispersed – as such, a complete blow to the program would require a more comprehensive attack against Iran’s full “military real estate,” according to the report. Rogers even argues that the attack might be so comprehensive as to include an attack against Hezbollah’s missiles, in an attempt to pre-empt a response from Lebanon. Due to the likely comprehensive nature of an attack, there would be significant civilian casualties.

The report contends that if Israel attacks Iran, it will lead to protracted war in the region and have devastating consequences in the long term. An Israeli attack on Iran could utilize long-range strike aircraft, conventionally-armed land-based ballistic missiles, submarine-launched cruise missiles, and/or UAVs. While some media accounts have suggested that Israel could use low-yield tactical nuclear earth-penetrating warheads to target underground facilities, this report considers that possibility unlikely, in part because it would have “immensely serious long-term consequences for global security.”

In addition, the attack would probably not destabilize the Ahmadinejad regime – rather, Rogers predicts that a military strike would increase political unity in Iran and provide a powerful rallying point for the regime in Tehran.

The report also outlines several probable Iranian responses to a strike on its nuclear infrastructure. Possible reactions include:
• Withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and immediate action to develop nuclear weapons to deter further attacks. Such work would use deeply-buried facilities that are reported to be under construction.
• A series of actions aimed at Israel as well as targeting the United States and its western partners including:
• missile attacks on Israel;
• actions to cause a sharp rise in oil prices by closing the Straits of Hormuz;
• paramilitary and/or missile attacks on western Gulf oil production, processing and transportation facilities;
• strong support for paramilitary groups in Iraq and Afghanistan opposing western involvement.

Although Tehran’s immediate response may not be military action, Rogers argues, the regime would seek to build a nuclear arsenal and delivery vehicles as quickly as possible. Thus, the report concludes that an attack would not just be a stand alone strike but “almost certainly be the beginning of a long-term process of regular Israeli air strikes to further prevent the development of nuclear weapons and medium-range missiles . . . Iranian responses would also be long-term.”

With this dire prediction in mind, Rogers presents two possible courses of action, for the U.S., to reduce the likelihood of an attack or mitigate its effects:
[1] redouble efforts to get a diplomatic settlement, a process more likely to achieve results, if prospects for an Israeli/Palestinian peace process are greatly increased, if relations between Iran and western Gulf States improve and if there is the beginning of a prospect of a regional nuclear-free zone…[or, 2] accept that Iran may eventually acquire a nuclear capability and use that as the start of a process of balanced regional denuclearisation.

For more background on Rogers’ study, also see the 2006 Oxford Research Group report entitled “Iran: Consequences of a War.”

The Oxford Research Group report presents a thorough and reasoned analysis of the likely nature and responses to an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Among the numerous critical issues that Rogers addresses is the question of U.S. involvement. Technically speaking, Israel has the capability to conduct an attack on Iran without international (i.e. American) assistance. Although Israeli planes could avoid using U.S-controlled airspace in the region, this report and others note that this would make the mission considerably more difficult. Whether or not Israel has the permission – implicit or explicit – of the U.S. government to conduct the strike, the perception that the U.S. was involved would probably be quite high in the region. The U.S. has and continues to be perceived as Israel’s “puppet-master”, despite the well-publicized disagreements of late.

Rogers’ apparent assumption that Israel’s advancements in military technology necessarily make an Israeli attack on Iran more likely seems simplified. However, this analysis goes well beyond technological and military determinism and thoughtfully takes into account the relevant domestic political contexts in the region, as well as the evolving nature of relations between Tel Aviv, Washington, and Tehran.