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    Middle East
     Apr 7, 2005
The myth of an Israeli strike on Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

BERLIN - There is much talk these days of an impending Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, fueled most recently by a London Times article indicating that the Israeli parliament had given the initial nod to the planned attack - to take care of what the Israeli politicians of various persuasions regularly describe as the "biggest existential threat" to the Jewish state.

Yet a careful examination of the various logistical, operational feasibility as well as geopolitical and regional aspects or consequences of this much-debated scenario leads us to the opposite conclusion, namely, the impractical and unworkable nature of the so-called "Osirak option", named after Israel's successful aerial bombardment of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.

Lest we forget, while the full details of the Osirak operations have yet to be revealed, it is fairly certain that Israeli fighter jets crossed the airspace of one or more of Iraq's neighbors to reach Iraq for their single strike. In attacking Iran's multiple nuclear facilities, spread throughout the country, particularly in central Iran, requiring a long trek across the borders, Israel's best option would be a simultaneous multi-pronged strike using different routes, eg through Jordan and Iraq as well as the Mediterranean route through Turkey and or Azerbaijan, not to mention the logistical "nightmare" of long distance necessitating either aerial refueling or midpoint landing.

Yet at present neither option is available to Israel, nor is there any immediate prospect of their availability in the near future, given both Iran's cordial relations with its neighbors and the fears and concerns of those neighbors of a severe Iranian backlash in case they permit their airspace for an Israeli attack on Iran.

Turkey, Israel's "strategic partner" in the region, has excellent economic and diplomatic relations with Iran, as the two enjoy voluminous energy trade, regional cooperation through the Economic Cooperation Organization, and common policy toward Iraq and the "Kurdish issue"; the latter was for all practical purposes solved after 2001 after both sides set up a joint "border security" committee that resolved the outstanding differences between Tehran and Ankara on the issue of Kurdish insurgency. Hence, at present, irrespective of their divergent political orientations, one being secularist the other Islamist and theocratic-republican, Iran and Turkey enjoy the dividends of stable neighborly relations unlikely to be torpedoed by an Israeli incursion inside Iran through Turkish territory.

Of course, Turkey remains concerned about the nature of Iran's nuclear programs, yet its leaders do not share Israel's paranoid alarm about a "nuclear Iran" in the absence of any credible intelligence that would substantiate this fear, notwithstanding Iran's adherence to the intrusive Additional Protocol of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and the recent IAEA chief's report confirming the absence of any evidence to corroborate the (US and Israeli) accusations that Iran is building a nuclear arsenal. (Recently, Aharon Ze'evi, an Israeli general, went on record stating that "Iran is not actually capable of enriching uranium to build a nuclear bomb ..." This is in contrast to Brenda Shaffer, a former Israeli officer turned Harvard scholar, who has repeatedly penned that Iran is at the "nuclear threshold".)

In the light of Turkey's leaders' stated satisfaction with Iran's continued cooperation with the IAEA inspections and the Iran-European Union nuclear negotiations, it is hard to envisage them taking on the risk of jeopardizing their sensitive, and mutually rewarding, economic, security and other ties with Iran by allowing Israel to use their air space against Iran.

Unfortunately, the high improbability of an Israeli operation against Iran through Turkey has consistently escaped the attention of Western media and the army of military and security pundits writing about this scenario. To give an example, in his recent book, The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth Pollock overlooks Turkey's unwillingness to accede to Israel's request when discussing the "Osirak option". Similarly, veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in his New Yorker article on a similar subject, simply takes for granted that because of Turkey's close ties to both Israel and the US it could be a launching pad for military offensives against Iran's nuclear installations.

Clearly, such convenient oversights, and consistent mischaracterizations of Iran-Turkey relations as predominantly competitive, when in fact the cooperative side has the clear upper hand, simply add fuel to the myth of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran, whereas what is needed is a proper analysis of the key variables, such as the long-term damage to Iran-Turkey relations affecting the larger region if Turkey ever consented to an Israeli request for the use of its airspace for military action against Iran.

What makes this an even less likely scenario is the recent setback in Turkey-Israel relations caused by media revelations that Israel is actively courting Kurdish groups in the region, a charge flatly denied by Israel when confronted harshly about it by Ankara not long ago. Turkey's relations with the EU could suffer as well, and its prospects for inclusion as a EU member further postponed, if Turkey puts itself at the disposal of US and Israel for military action unsupported by Europe.

Henceforth, the most likely scenario for Israeli use of Turkey's airspace against Iran is a prior Turkey-EU consultation and understanding on the matter, unlikely to materialize in the post-Iraq invasion milieu featuring a war-weary Europe uninterested in risking the entire sum of its relations with Iran over the nuclear question.

The same argument applies, mutatis mutandis, to Iran's other neighbor, Azerbaijan, whose new leader visited Iran recently and assured Tehran that under no circumstance would he allow a foreign attack against Iran through Azerbaijan. In fact, compared with Turkey, Azerbaijan has even more to fear of a harsh Iranian reaction in case of an Israeli raid through the Caspian state, which looks to Iran for support in its long bid to regain the territory lost to Armenia during the 1990s. In other words, Baku would have much to lose and little, if anything, to gain, by playing in the hands of US and Israel, which would also mar its carefully cultivated relations with Moscow (unhappy with Baku's cozying up to the US military).

As with Azerbaijan, all the other Caucasian-Central Asian doors to Israel for an attack on Iran are currently closed, given the prominent sway of the Russian military in the region and Moscow's inherent opposition to any US-Israeli plan to weaken a powerful and reliable allay, namely the Islamic Republic of Iran. As for Pakistan, much like Turkey and Azerbaijan, it has simply too much vested interest with Iran, covering Afghanistan and the Indo-Pakistani balance of power, among other things, to allow itself a supporting role for an invasion of Iran by the Jewish state hated by Pakistan's mass of Muslim fundamentalists. Already, President General Pervez Musharraf and his assistants have repeatedly gone on record clearly stating that they would never allow Pakistan to be used against Iran.

What then remains of the "Osirak option" is an Israeli strike passing through Jordan and then Iraq before reaching Iran, hardly conceivable in today's Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi polity. Assuming, in argumendo, that Israel would "violate" Iraqi airspace to conduct its operations, this could only happen with the United States' complicity, which, in turn, would both seriously complicate the relationship of the US and the new Iraqi government, making a mockery of the United States' claim that the "occupation had ended" and Iraq's sovereignty "restored", and, worse, igniting an unpredictable new round of Iran-US hostility inside Iraq that could easily escalate and engulf the oil-rich Persian Gulf. For one thing, this would adversely impact the world economy by causing substantially higher oil prices, much to the chagrin of Western economies already suffering from high energy prices.

Again, it is rather astounding how simplistic, and naive, most of the published stuff is on an Israeli strike against Iran, drawing illicit comparisons between the Osirak power plant in Iraq, which was barely constructed and was in the incipient stage of construction when demolished by Israeli bombs, and the Russian-made Bushehr nuclear reactor, employing hundreds of Russian workers now putting the final touches on it; the Bushehr plant is more than 90% completed, Russia and Iran have reached an agreement on the return of "spent fuel", and in addition to the loss of Russian lives, causing Moscow's fury perhaps to the level of affecting Israel's energy ties with Russia, its bombardment would cause a massive environmental catastrophe likely to impact Iran's neighbors in the Persian Gulf.

Thus, aside from the question of what Israel would actually achieve by destroying the Bushehr power plant, except angering the Russians, Arabs and the whole Muslim world and making Iran ever more determined to retaliate and build a nuclear arsenal without hesitation, the simplest questions concerning the dissimilarities of Osirak and Bushehr targets have yet to be addressed by the "experts" and policymakers in Washington and Tel Aviv advising a military strike against the Bushehr reactor.

And then there are the "operational" nightmares pertaining to Iran's air defense systems, particularly when Israeli jets would have to fly across Iran to reach the targets in Isfahan, Tehran, Arak and elsewhere, facing rather formidable responses from Iran's air force and surface to air missiles. By hitting these targets, Israel would inflict major "collateral" damage on civilians in Iran, and this factor alone would have a long-term implication hardly desirable by Israel, that is, Iran's transformation into a sworn enemy of Israel.

Despite virulent anti-Israeli rhetoric in Iran today, Iran's leaders and policymakers by and large consider Israel an "out of area" country not germane to Iran's national security worries. In fact, no one in Iran takes seriously Israeli propaganda about Iran's threats to Israel, and yet this could change overnight if Israel attacks Iran, causing substantial new security worries for Israel at its borders with Lebanon, and even Syria. A whole new Arab-Iran alignment against Israel would take shape in the aftermath of an Israeli strike against Iran, compared with the relatively benign relations between the two sides now.

Sadly, the Israeli perspective on Iran appears fixated on the rhetoric, ignoring both the gap between mass-generated, largely symbolic rhetoric and the actual policy, as well as the positive signals of an evolving Iranian position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, notwithstanding Iran's declared willingness to abide by the will of Palestinians, above all, a two-state solution. But no matter how deep their misperceptions of Iran, or their delusions of an "Osirak option" against Iran, Israeli leaders, and their media pundits, are consciously propagating a myth of military action that flies in the face of formidable obstacles that make it impractical and, increasingly, into a paper wish-list, but one that nonetheless adds much to the political and psychological instabilities in the volatile region and beyond.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and "Iran's Foreign Policy Since 9/11", Brown's Journal of World Affairs, co-authored with former deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki, No 2, 2003. He teaches political science at Tehran University.

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