Barack Obama no longer rules out an American assault on Iran (as reviewed in the opening article in this issue). But his new posture confronts Israel with five thorny dilemmas in view of unresolved issues in Washington:
1. Does the Obama administration propose to go it alone for a possible assault on Iran or will it allot Israel a role in a shared operation? There is little doubt that Washington would prefer to dispense with an Israeli involvement, but the present state of US and Israel military preparations offers no clue to a final decision on this question.
2. The Juniper Cobra 10 military exercise held jointly by US and Israeli military forces three weeks ago was based on the proposition that whether the US or Israel struck first, Iran's allies and surrogates would hit back at both the leading and the silent partners in the offensive. Both will find themselves under attack in any circumstances.
The drill focused on defenses against Iranian, Syrian, Hizballah and Hamas missile attacks, as well as ballistic projectiles fired from Iranian submarines or warships far out in the Mediterranean.
3. Israel is preparing its ground, air and naval forces as well as its homeland defense command to stand ready for missile onslaughts to come from four fronts regardless of who leads the military showdown with Iran. Israel's strategists are studying three scenarios:
One, Independent Israeli operations will go forward in preset Iranian sectors determined in conjunction with the US high command.
Two, Israeli and US intelligence analysts will disagree (as they have often in the last decade) over whether or not Iran has crossed the threshold and started assembling a nuclear weapon, over the timeline of its nuclear program and over the optimal date for D-Day.
Three, President Obama may perform another zigzag on Iran and zig away from a military option.
A complicated, harsh and costly ordeal
4. Another unknown is this: Will Washington prefer to keep Israel out of the main assault on Iran and have it standing ready to neutralize Tehran's allies, Syria, Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and hold them back from stinging US forces from the rear as they move forward against Iran?
This decision would bring Israel into direct collision with three hostile forces – Hizballah and Syria in the north and east and Hamas and Jihad Islami in the south.
5. And, finally, would the Americans ask Israeli armed forces to grapple with an Iranian preemptive strike so as to leave the US army and the naval forces deployed in the Persian Gulf free to handle the main thrust against the Islamic Republic?
Just as some American officers and men on vacation in Thailand cannot keep their coming mission in Iran entirely to themselves (as reported in the first article in this issue), so too DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources cite members of Israel's special forces, armored units, air force and navy as bringing up their next mission in conversations with close friends and family.
Common to them all is the reference to June this year is a likely date for the conflagration to erupt. They all agree that it will probably evolve into a long, challenging and costly haul.
Our sources single out three indications of accelerated Israeli preparations for this conflict.
Pressing Germany hard for more U-boats
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being nagged by Jerusalem to expedite the delivery of the two Dolphin-class submarines due to be handed over to the Israel Navy in 2012 by the Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft shipyard in Kiel. She has also been asked to add a third sub to the order, also to be delivered with the utmost urgency.
The three Dolphin submarines Israel has already acquired from Germany are in service and reported to be capable of launching nuclear-armed Harpoon cruise missiles.
Washington has also been enlisted to persuade Chancellor Merkel to let Israel have three Dolphin subs on temporary loan from the Germany Navy until its order is discharged.
The expeditious consignment of the submarines to the Israeli Navy topped the agenda at the joint German-Israel cabinet meeting headed by Chancellor Merkel and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Berlin on Jan. 18.
Israel's requests are still pending. Aside from military considerations for prioritizing the transaction, there is another: The chancellor would be required to earmark another German grant of $1.1 billion and so double the funding Berlin advanced to Jerusalem for the first subs.
A submarine fleet of six Dolphin subs would provide Israel with a long-range strike arm capable of launching hundreds of missiles from the open sea at targets on mainland Iran. Even four or five submarines targeting Iran, leaving one or two deployed in the Mediterranean to defend Israeli shores or reach targets in Syria, could not operate for long without logistical support from the US Fifth Fleet which patrols the Persian Gulf.
This illustrates one of the many ways Israel and the US will have to interface in the event of a military strike against Iran.
Egypt wants to be a player in US-Israeli moves
In another sign of Israeli naval activity in the Persian Gulf, two Israeli warships, the INS Hanit and Eilat Saar-5 class missile corvettes, headed through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea Thursday morning, Feb. 4, expecting to arrive in Persian Gulf waters within four days, that is, by next Sunday.
Their route was released publicly for the first time although, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources indicate, the publicity might have exposed the ships to attack by Iranian Revolutionary Guards commando units or exploding swift boats.
Their arrival was almost certainly coordinated in advance with the US Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain.
Interestingly, Cairo made a big performance of permitting the Israel fleet's Suez passage to a conflict zone with Iran and of showing support for Israeli or American plans for Iran.
Our sources disclose that Egypt took the unusual step of notifying dozens of shippers worldwide that merchant traffic would be halted for the passage of the Israeli warships and their vessels should seek temporary harbor.
Traffic was also stopped on the canal bridges and tunnels connecting Egypt with the Sinai Peninsula. Indeed, Egypt outdid itself in measures to secure the passage of the Israeli warships, going so far as to post anti-air missile and gun batteries on the bridges and hills overlooking the Suez Canal, especially at the big towns of Ismailia and Suez.
Israel speeds homeland defense readiness
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources report Egypt is showing its teeth to inform Tehran that it is solidly aboard any US-Israel operation against its nuclear ambitions. Cairo will to stand by the understandings in this regard reached with CIA Director Leon Panetta in his hushed-up talks in Cairo on Jan. 28 with President Hosni Mubarak and top Egyptian military and intelligence brass.
The CIA chief was in Jerusalem the next day for follow-up talks with prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israeli military and intelligence strategists.
Israel's military ties with Germany also bear on its preparations for defending the home front, which is expected to take the brunt of a four-directional missile assault.
Berlin has been asked to divert its production lines as quickly as possible to turning out tank engines and gear boxes for Israel's advanced Chariot-4 tanks which run on these German products. The urgency of bringing the Chariot-4 fleet to peak operational readiness is a pointer to serious IDF preparations for a military showdown with Syria, the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as a result of Israel's role in any assault on Iran.
Israel towns have been seeing four or five missile defense practices per week since late last year, including drills simulating attacks with unconventional weapons. New bomb shelters are going up at crowd centers and extra warning siren systems sprouting on rooftops.