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    Middle East
     Sep 12, 2012

Israel sticks to its guns on Iran
By Victor Kotsev

The diplomatic and political pirouettes related to the Iranian nuclear crisis continue at full speed in Washington, Jerusalem, Tehran and other world capitals. The Israeli expectation that the United States draw a "clear red line" - essentially issue an ultimatum to Iran backed by a credible military threat - is meeting stiff opposition: as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday in a radio interview, "We're not setting deadlines." Shortly afterward, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the bargaining continued.
Netanyahu has hinted recently that he might be willing to postpone an Israeli air strike on the Islamic Republic, and a tentative consensus seems to be emerging among analysts that the danger this year has passed. "August 2012 will be one of those periods that will be dissected by historians in generations


to come, each day analyzed," wrote in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer. "Piecing together events in Jerusalem and Washington, Tel Aviv and Tehran, they will try to understand how Benjamin Netanyahu took his country to the brink of war, looked down into the abyss, took a deep breath and was yanked back."

It would appear that Netanyahu and his influential defense minister, Ehud Barak, are just as, if not more, isolated in their threats of war as are Iran's leaders in their determination to continue with their nuclear program. The Israeli leaders - not unlike the Iranians, despite the obvious differences - face domestic as well as international pressures. Even the Canadian move to cut diplomatic relations with Tehran last week can be seen as an incentive for Israel not to attack (and to give diplomacy a chance) rather than the other way round.

So can Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's recent attack on US President Barack Obama's cautious approach to the crisis. "Perhaps [Obama's] biggest failure is as it relates to the greatest threat that America faces and the world faces, which is a nuclear Iran," Romney told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

The United States and the European powers, while slapping Tehran with ever-tougher sanctions - just a couple of days ago, European Union officials announced they were considering a new round - have also leaned hard on Jerusalem to wait.

Russia and China, on the other hand, already think that the sanctions have gone too far. On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slammed them, saying after a meeting with Clinton that "Unilateral US sanctions against Syria and Iran increasingly take on an extraterritorial character, directly affecting the interests of Russian business, in particular banks."

The two countries, which do not always see eye-to-eye on foreign policy, are motivated by major geopolitical considerations on top of the financial ones, and are unlikely to budge. Israeli journalist Herb Keinon perhaps best summarized an argument that has appeared in different versions elsewhere in the past:
The Chinese and the Russians - especially the Russians - fear that the collapse of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah would lead to complete American domination of the Mideast and its oil flow. America, in this view, already has close allies in the Persian Gulf, in Turkey, in Israel. The collapse of Iran and Syria could possibly send those states as well into the US camp, leaving Moscow and Beijing without any foothold in the strategically critical region. [1]
The Israeli strike option is not without its supporters, both at home and abroad - many of the Arab countries, specifically in the Persian Gulf, are reportedly quiet members of the latter camp. However, the concluding statement of the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement last month, which was supportive of Iran's nuclear program and was adopted despite a number of inaccuracies, [2] demonstrates the kind of discourse which is likely to gain prominence in the aftermath of a unilateral Israeli operation.

Still the speculation continues. More fanciful takes such as that of a recent Sunday Times report go as far as to claim that Israel is preparing an electromagnetic pulse attack to destroy the Iranian power grid with a high-altitude nuclear explosion. [3] (This idea may be based in part on past reports that the Iranian power grid may be vulnerable to a more simple cyber attack and that Israel may take advantage of that in a conflict.)

More somber voices warn either that Netanyahu is too genuinely scared by the Iranian nuclear threat to hold back indefinitely an Israeli (conventional) pre-emptive attack, or that his and his associates' thinking, many of them former commandos, is too rigid and militaristic. "It's a certain fraternity that for many years has managed to place security as the central issue in the country," Yael Dayan, daughter of the famous Israeli statesman and military leader Moshe Dayan, told the Associated Press recently. "They need a war to justify their own existence." [4]

Most analysts, in fact, agree that absent another resolution to the crisis, Israel would eventually strike. Many of Netanyahu's domestic critics also support an operation as an option of last resort, but disagree with their prime minister's timetable. Timing, therefore, is key: while November marks the closing of an important tactical window of opportunity, Israel has allowed other self-imposed deadlines to pass without its military option expiring. Next year may not be too late either - especially if the Americans agree to set a tougher tone now. It is also possible that the Israeli leaders will spring a surprise despite all odds, as has happened in the past.

These probabilities are reflected in an important new report titled "Analyzing the Impact of Preventative Strikes Against Iran's Nuclear Facilities" that came out last week. The 98-page document, compiled by Anthony Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, summarizes much of what has been published on the issue in the last years, offering many specific military details.

The authors consider several scenarios, including, interestingly, an Israeli tactical nuclear strike (though not a high-altitude EMP attack, which would arguably damage the power grids of other neighboring countries as well). They conclude that "The US would not allow any other country, even a strong ally such as Israel, to use [nuclear weapons], unless another country had used nuclear weapons against the US and its allies."

The main possibility the report examines, in fact, is that of an American operation. To prevent damage from the expected Iranian retaliatory strike, the US has been developing a multi-tier missile defense shield in its Gulf allies, and is reportedly working on increasing the coordination between the different systems in the different countries. This move is motivated by the assessment that "Iran sees its missile capabilities as a way to compensate for its shortcomings in conventional forces, as well as a means to strike at high-value targets with little warning, such as population centers, and Western and Western-backed forces in the region, including US bases in the Gulf."

The report analyzes a sample air operation, setting the mission parameters as 75% or more damage "for each target, nuclear and missile, resulting in a delay of at least 5 to 10 years in Iran's nuclear program, and substantially weakening Iran's ballistic missile retaliatory capability." The targets are set as five main nuclear facilities (Fordow, Arak, Esfahan, Natanz and Parchin), eight missile bases (Bakhtaran, Abu Musa Island, Bandar Abbas, Imam Ali, Kuhestak, Mahsad, Semnan and Tabriz), 15 missile production facilities, and 22 assumed mobile launchers "in various locations".

The authors argue that a total of around 100 advanced airplanes would be needed, including 10 B-2 stealth strategic bombers each carrying two 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator bunker busters, as well as 90 F-18s, F-15Es and F-16Cs. Various other supporting aircraft such as escort fighters, electronic warfare and advanced warning and control systems (AWACS) would also presumably take part.

A conventional Israeli strike would most likely require a similar number of aircraft, or "over 25% of the high end combat aircraft of Israeli Airforce and 100% of the Tankers". Three main routes are suggested: the Northern Route (optimal) along the border between Turkey and Syria, the Central Route between Syria and Jordan and through Iraq, and the Southern Route through Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The report, however, cautions that a military operation - especially a unilateral Israeli strike - would have grave repercussions on Middle Eastern geopolitcs and world economy. Among other insights, it demonstrates that the spare pipeline capacity of the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, which could be used to bypass an Iranian blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, is at best 4.3 million barrels/day, or 25% of the total carried through the strait each day. A prolonged closure of the narrow passage, on the other hand, would hurt the troubled global economy badly.

In order to counter the latter threat - and to increase the credibility of the American military option, thus reassuring the Israelis - the US has been conducting a massive military exercise in the Persian Gulf. The drill simulates clearing naval mines and neutralizing Iranian attacks on shipping, and is expected to continue a total of 12 days.

On the other hand, even those who advocate diplomacy admit that it will likely take time - some push the timetable as far back as June 2013, after the Iranian presidential elections have taken place. It is unclear whether there is so much time on the clock.

1. Diplomacy: Iran for dummies, Jerusalem Post, September 6, 2012.
2. NAM Countries Hypocritical on Iran, United States Institute of Peace, September 7, 2012.
3. Experts: Israel could send Iran back to Stone Age, Ynet, September 9, 2012.
4. Former commandos dominate Israeli politics, AP, September 8, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Sep 10, 2012)


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