Amid war talk, arms buildup continues
By David Moon
While the government of Israel retains the military option for meeting what it
sees as the existential threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, a strike by
Israel's air force at this time can be considered premature.
The reasons: a new United Nations sanctions regime targeting Iran coupled with
separate and more extensive United States and European Union sanctions are
aimed at restricting the political, economic, military and intelligence reach
of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Barring any overtly offensive action by Iran's military, this fourth round of
UN sanctions at the very least will gestate until the end
of the year until measurable outcomes can be discerned.
All the same, however, reports swirl across the Middle East, including of
Israeli helicopters ferrying supplies to the Royal Saudi Air Force base at
Tubruz, as first reported by Iran's Fars News Agency. A news flash saying the
US and Israel were prepping airfields from which to strike Iran from Georgia
and Azerbaijan is just as sketchy. The credibility of these accounts can be
summed up by Darth Vader demanding, "What of the reports of the rebels massing
near Sullist?" On the whole, not much.
In Washington, President Barack Obama's poll numbers have dived and, with
November's congressional elections in the offing, it is doubtful Obama would
deal decisively with Iran before then. To do so would fracture his political
Apart from the fevers set burning by unsubstantiated reports of possible
military action by the US, Arabs and Israel in some sort of combination, the
base line for the Israelis remains the tyranny of time. How long until the
Iranians announce their next nuclear breakthrough? When would be the right time
to unleash the Israel Air Force (IAF) against Iran's nuclear facilities with
any real expectation of regional political and material support? At this time,
can Israel count on the United States to either aid the mission or at the very
least look the other way?
By the same measure, time is collapsing on the regime in Tehran. United Nations
sanctions have for now stayed Israel's hand, yet Iran's Supreme Leader Ali
Khamenei must realize this set of sanctions is the fourth attempt and very
possibly the last try to gain his positive attention and that of his
government. If this fourth round of UN sanctions crumbles to no effect,
forcing, yet again, negotiations toward the implementation of a fifth round of
sanctions, can the Israelis politically or militarily allow ever more finite
sand to pass through the glass?
For Israel, the estimated intersection of time and Iran's nuclear progress
delineate whether there will be regional war or peace. If the choice for Israel
is war with Iran and Hezbollah, what options lie open to the supreme leader to
strike back at his mortal foe?
The prime consideration of the supreme leader in consultation with his
Guardians Council and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's National Security Council
is how to deal with the shock of a bloody nose delivered on the sacred soil of
the Islamic republic. Each participant, be they military or theocratic or
political, should be under no illusions that years of asymmetrical undermining
of Arab governments through a careful mix of violence and rhetoric have left
Iran with few regional allies beyond Sudan, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In
Iran, there remains a breach in the populace over the nature of Ahmadinejad's
selection, not election.
Just last week, the Iranian president snubbed the conservative clerics, many of
whom still retain the powers and status granted them by the late ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini. Ahmadinejad's announcement that there is but "one party"
(his) in Iran rankled these clerics, risking more open political division.
The overriding question in the leadership huddle will be whether the US and
Arab states will have a role in aiding Israel that will be too blatant to
ignore. If this is the case, the main confrontation will take place in the
Persian Gulf, but this choice brings with it the concerns and attention of
every industrialized nation, including Iran's only ally of substance, China.
Further, the United States is the only country with the arms, expertise and
wherewithal to use them in a manner that would possibly decapitate the regime
through extensive air operations of the kind that the IAF can only dream of
With the negatives taken into account, Khamenei in his constitutional role as
chairman of the armed forces must calibrate the response best articulating his
needs - a decision that rallies Iran's leadership, the Arab street and the
fractured Iranian people behind his leadership and his regime.
The steely choice instead of a potentially hasty, deadly shock-driven decision
to take on all-comers is for Iran's leaders to fight where most of their
relevant military assets under their control are concentrated.
For Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, recent revelations point toward a new
kind of offensive capability that meets the supreme leader's strategic and
political necessities following an attack by Israel. The recent alleged
transfer of a small number of Scud missiles to Hezbollah from Syria only serves
to highlight the capabilities of Hezbollah-operated M600 missiles manufactured
and supplied by Syria.
The M600 is a truck-mounted solid fuel booster pushing a 500 kilogram (1,100
pound) warhead nearly 300 kilometers. There is a consensus in Israel that Syria
has provided thousands of such missiles to Hezbollah. The unanswered question -
and the one of most concern - is the number of game-changing launchers
Hezbollah has already got hidden away or that it will acquire from Syria.
Israelis express concern that this missile will be directed at population
centers. A more accurate and more dangerous threat to Israel militarily is for
Hezbollah to rain down rockets on its most dangerous enemy - the IAF -
principally on airfields in northern Israel.
To be sure, the Israelis possess many hardened aircraft shelters; however,
missile attacks can still disrupt the operational tempo of an air base. There
will always be the opportunity to catch aircraft in the open by aiming for
non-hardened targets critical to operations. Other targets in northern Israel
include the naval base at Haifa and numerous army bases.
A May 7 United Press International dispatch reported, "The head of Israel's air
force air defense command, Brig Gen Doron Gavish, has said that the systems
currently deployed in Israel could be overwhelmed by ‘the massive deployment of
weapons of this type [M600] in enemy countries and by terror organizations'."
What the M600 brings to Hezbollah is the opportunity to go force-on-force with
the Israelis instead of only scattering unguided missiles at population
centers. However, with upwards of 40,000 Katyusha rockets stockpiled, Hezbollah
still retains the terror option.
On July 7, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported on a rare disclosure by the
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that Hezbollah, at least in the village of Khiam,
had "at least 10 weapons storage sites - some of them just dozens of meters
from schools or hospitals ...”
One interpretation of Hezbollah's stockpile strategy is to provide its own
civilians as targets to justify bombarding northern Israel with even more
unguided rockets than during the war in 2006.
Recently, a battery of the IAF's new defensive missile system, "Iron Dome", was
installed in the field. This system is aimed at curtailing the threat of some
35,000 to 40,000 Hezbollah-controlled Katyusha rockets. What is missing is a
system named "David's Sting" - the missile to deal with intermediate threats
like that posed by the M600.
Arrows and Patriots, which are more strategic interceptors, will have to
continue to serve in a dual role against strategic and intermediate threats.
This is the one area in which the Israelis need more time.
Israel's main missile defense system, the Arrow-2 ABM, is state-of-the-art; the
limiting factor - as published by multiple sources - is the ability of its
Citron Tree Battle Management System to only track 14 missile intercepts at any
one time. There are a number of Patriot anti-ballistic missile systems in
Israel, but placements are a problem - protect the populace or protect the
If Hezbollah's plentiful M600s were fired in high-volume volleys, the Arrow
system could be overwhelmed. If the IRGC launched Iranian high-value Shahab-3Bs
and variants timed with Hezbollah's M600s, the Islamic republic could deal
telling blows to strategic targets, sure to be a crowd-pleaser at home and
cheered on the Arab street.
As reviews are mixed concerning the attributes of the Shahab-3B, the worst-
case scenario may not be completely accurate, but these specifications are too
dangerous to ignore. With a range to hit any target in Israel, the Shahab-3B
boosts an efficient and maneuverable Triconic type of MIRVED warhead capable of
holding 500 kilograms of nuclear, chemical or biologic weapons.
The deployment of the Shahab-3B would give the Iranian leadership the
opportunity to prove it could, at some point, get a nuclear weapon to Israel.
And for the leaders of some Arab states, this is no comfort at all.
While the Israelis piece together their high-tech missile defense, Hezbollah,
according to a June 30 Wall Street Journal article, has also acquired from Iran
through Syria an "off-the-rack" low-tech threat to take on the IAF.
Hezbollah is said to be flush with the Russian-made SA-7 "Grail", the SA-14
"Gremlin" and the SA-18 "Grouse". These shoulder-fired SAMs are a point defense
for covering mobile missile launchers like the M600 when exposed during the
firing and retirement cycle.
Also in the bargain came the SA-8 "Gecko", a mobile launcher with a range of
about 16 kilometers and a height of 12,000 meters. Mix these new capabilities
with Syria's new radar system supplied by Tehran and the toll for roaring down
the Bekaa on full afterburner just got a lot more deadly.
For Israel, the cost of setting back Iran's nuclear program a few years before
dealing decisively with Hezbollah and Syria is now at an all-time high. Reports
of Georgian and Saudi cooperation with Israel, however accurate, come with no
guarantee of mitigating the blowback from a lone IAF strike on Iran. For
Israel, the options are stark: take on Hezbollah first or in tandem with Iran.
This report reveals the Achilles' heel of any IAF strike on Iran. There would
not be time for enough sorties, or time on target, for the Israelis to do much
more that cripple Iran's enrichment program. The offensive and defensive
capabilities of Iran will remain intact, while the IDF's ability to effectively
counter Hezbollah's and the IRGC's missiles remains open to question. Much
depends on Khamenei's reaction. Will the supreme leader lash out at the US and
Gulf states if attacked by Israel, or will he make it a private fight between
Shi'ites and Jews? A private fight, a limited war for limited but precise
gains, properly executed, could earn Iran the political laurels in the region
and across the world that have so far eluded the Islamic Republic since its
founding in 1979.
David Moon is a regular US contributor to AFI Research. He can be
contacted at [email protected]
(Copyright 2010 David Moon.)
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