“Israel will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran!” say all the country’s leaders – from prime minister Ehud Olmert, defense minister Ehud Barak, chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, to transport minister Shaul Mofaz, former army chief and defense minister, who leads Israel’s strategic dialogue with the US.
They have all reiterated in the past week that Israel reserves all its options for dealing with the threat. Mofaz elaborated by saying that, since every non-military option had prove ineffective, Israel was left with a very narrow window of no more than ten months to act. Iran is expected to have a nuclear bomb by early 2009.
These statements leave open key questions posed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources:
1. Is Israel still gearing up for an attack, when the US National Intelligence Estimate’s conclusion that Iran had shelved its covert military program meant that Washington had dropped its military option? The answer is: Yes.
2. Does Israel have enough resources for a solo operation to wipe out the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program?
This question breaks down into four parts.
A. Is the incumbent political and military leadership of Israel resolute, courageous and able enough to undertake this fateful strategic decision and face the consequences?
The answer is: No.
None have so far managed to show they can think independently and shape policies commensurate with Israel’s strategic interests, without turning to Washington. In the past 15 years, every major Israeli military action ordered by successive prime ministers, including Olmert, has been coordinated with Uncle Sam.
Can Israeli afford to flout Washington?
The opposition leaders in line for the premiership after Olmert’s widely predicted election defeat are no different. Gone are the politicians of the caliber of David Ben-Gurion, who in 1956 sent Israeli troops into Sinai to quell the rising Egyptian menace, and Menahem Begin, who ordered the Israeli air raid to destroy Iraq’s atomic reactor. Both acted against America’s wishes.
B. Would Washington accept a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran?
It would be up to the next occupant of the White House, whomsoever he or she may be. The chances of any US presidential nod are slim. It would be left to the Israeli prime minister to decide whether or not to flout America’s wishes in the national security interest.
C. How would a military strike benefit Israel? That would depend on its scale and range of targets. Israel does not have the capacity to wipe out every last Iranian military installation, but it can destroy key sections of the program, thereby throwing out the timetable for Iran’s bomb program by five to eight years.
This raises more questions: Would a limited mission bring Israel home and dry?
Has the brutal math been computed between prospective mass Israeli casualties from an over-the-top Iranian response and the consequences of letting the Islamic Republic acquire a nuclear bomb?
D. Could Israel strike at very short notice should Iran achieve a sudden breakthrough this year toward achieving its objective?
The answer has both military and civilian aspects.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that the Israeli Defense Forces are advancing apace with preparations to strike Iran.
Two major strides were made in the last ten days.
Monday, Jan. 21, Israel sent the TecSar spy satellite into low-earth orbit aboard an Indian PSLV from India’s space center.
The most advanced of Israel’s satellites, TecSar, is the first equipped with the superior Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) that allows its camera to take high-resolution pictures of small targets in cloudy or foggy weather at any point on earth.
Its polar orbit provides a complementary angle to the Ofek series for tracking Iran’s nuclear and military activities.
Israel‘s defense establishment believes in fast-approaching existential threat
The test firing was first scheduled for September 2007. It was postponed at the last minute by Washington’s intervention. The US defense secretary Robert Gates was able to persuade President George W. Bush to have the test called off on four grounds:
· TecSar in orbit would leave Israel free to attack Iran autonomously without recourse to US satellites.
· Bush and Gates did not like the notion of Israel having big-power size space boots like the US, Russia and China.
· Neither were they overjoyed by Israel’s collaboration with India on a high-tech space project, lest Israel shared with India the know-how to acquire its own spy satellite of the same high quality.
· India might ask for Israel’s TecSar to carry out spy missions on New Delhi’s behalf.
Yet Israeli defense leaders pushed New Delhi hard to stand up to pressure from Washington and go ahead with the TecSar test, the first time in fifteen years that a part of the Israeli establishment defied Washington on a military-intelligence decision.
It was also the first indication that Israel’s military and intelligence establishment were running ahead the policy-makers for a fateful decision.
America‘s withdrawal from confrontation with an Iran standing on the critical threshold of a nuclear weapon had placed Israel face to face with a peril that threatened not only its national interests but its very survival. Left holding the bag, Israel could not afford to follow America’s lead and back away from this danger.
For the first time in a decade and a-half, therefore, Israel may be prepared to consider going it alone against Iran without asking America where it stands.
The second key project ventured by Israel was another test firing, this one on Thursday, Jan. 17, of a propulsion engine extending the range of a missile already in stock to any point on earth. It was the first time a propulsion engine of this type was tested with a dual-stage rather than a three-stage missile.
Tehran sends key nuclear facilities to hideouts
This time, the test was coordinated with the US Missile Defense Program, finalized in fact during President Bush’s visit to Israel last month. US Sixth Fleet vessels played their part by cordoning off a section of the central Mediterranean around the landing area against the prying eyes of the Russian fleet, which is on a lengthy, muscle-flexing war game in the area.
By upgrading an existing long-range missile rather than waiting to develop a new generation, Israel saved time and billions of precious dollars.
The test sent a strong signal to Iran that its nuclear sites are within reach of Israeli missiles.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that Tehran is making its own preparations to withstand attack. While Israel was stocking up on long-range strike missiles of all kinds, Iran reciprocated by sending Syria, Hizballah and Hamas an assortment of short-range missiles and rockets.
Some Gulf source disclose that certain of Iran’s most sensitive covert installations are being moved out of the country’s Persian Gulf, central and Tehran regions to remote areas, such as the Mashhad province in the north, Khorasan in the northeast and Azerbaijan in the northwest, to place them out of range of Israeli missiles.
Some are tucked away in civilian industries, such as cotton gins – out of sight not only of Israel, but also International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
Israel’s third recent step towards a potential pre-emptive offensive against Iran was the expansion of the special Iran Command of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Air Force.
The IDF is made up of seven overt commands – Northern, Central, Southern, Air Force, Navy, Ground Forces, and Homeland – and an undercover unit known as the Iran Command.
Established in late 2005, this command was until recently an operational subsection of the Air Force. But of late, Air Force Chief Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedi has made the Iranian project his center of gravity, leaving the day-to-day administration of the Air Force and its operations to subordinates.
The Iran Command made its operational debut on Sept. 6 2007 with the demolition of the Syrian-North Korean nuclear installation under construction.
Strike on Syrian nuclear site: a dress rehearsal for Iran
This week, former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton on a visit to Israel advanced the view, representing certain parts of the Bush administration, that the Syrian strike was a sort of dress rehearsal to demonstrate for the benefit of senior policy-makers in Washington and Jerusalem, and US and Israeli military commands, that a strike against such nuclear facilities was feasible.
He commented that Israel's “stunningly successful” military strike on Syria last September “could constitute a precedent for a similar attack on Iran in the future.”
His remarks are worth noting – and especially his precise phrasing.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources noted Bolton spoke of a “military” strike, not an air attack as generally reported in the world media.
He was correct. Israeli special forces units trained for long-distance operations took part in the operation, as well as special nuclear technical teams, whose job it was to dismantle the equipment at the Syrian site and supervise its delivery to home base.
The Syrian mission’s make-up laid out some of the resources available to the Iran Command:
Air Force squadrons especially trained to hunt and destroy nuclear targets;
Ballistic and cruise missile units:
Special operations forces for long-distance missions;
Advanced electronic warfare teams using innovative home-made systems;
Dolphin submarines armed with nuclear cruise missiles, some of which are deployed in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea;
Advanced Arrow and Patriot anti-ballistic missile systems for protecting Israeli against Iranian reactive missile raids or attacks to pre-empt the Israeli strike.
The last resource opens up another key question: Has Israel’s home front been made ready for an Iranian counter-strike?
The answer is: No.
Israel‘s home front is unready
This week, Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi said that Hizballah’s massive 33-day rocket assault on northern Israel’s towns and villages in the 2006 Lebanon War demonstrated that, in future wars involving Israel, the home front would be part of the military frontline.
Significantly, he had nothing to say about securing the civilian population against missile and rocket assault, simply because very little has been done.
It is an open secret in Israel that the government and armed forces have neglected to invest in shelters for the population, even though a future war is expected to depend heavily on missile warfare from several fronts – not just Iran, but also its ally Syria and surrogates, Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank too.
Prime minister Olmert may go down in history for coining the untranslatable Hebrew phrase: “We will not fortify ourselves to death.”
In contrast to the military preparations afoot for a pre-emptive strike that could trigger a deadly missile attack from Iran and war action by its tools, Israeli government officials may admit that a nuclear-armed Iran would be intolerable, but go no further. They abstain from treating the threat as cause for Israeli preventive action, only as “a world problem.”
This theme has been stressed by President Shimon Peres, defense minister Barak and even opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party.
They avoid reference to the fact that America has abandoned its military option, or that the world is using the NIE report as a bridge for diplomatic engagement with Tehran, while turning a blind eye to the Islamic Republic’s march towards its nuclear goal.
A member of the prime minister’s Kadima party, ex–Maj. Gen. Prof. Yitzhak Ben-Israel, said with a certain naive assurance this week that, in his estimate, the world would not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons. A world-class missile expert, Prof. Ben-Israel insisted. “World leaders understand that a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands would lead to its acquisition by other nations and end up in terrorists’ hands. They will not let this happen,” he said.
If they can’t stop primitive Qassams, what about Iranian Shehabs?
There is therefore a wide gulf between the hectic preparations apace in Israel’s military and the politicians’ rhetoric.
The surface mood in the Israeli street is: eat, drink and make merry, especially in Tel Aviv, to offset a dark sense of being abandoned to the mercies of hesitant and vacillating politicians. Ordinary people are reminded daily of their vulnerability to attack and the absence of bomb shelters by the escalating Palestinian missile blitz against Israeli civilians living in the southwest, within range of the Gaza Strip.
The lingering question is if the military cannot – or is not permitted to – cope with the primitive missiles used by the fundamentalist terrorists Hamas – how will they manage to fend off Iran’s long-range ballistic Shehab-3 missiles?
The Hamas’ deployment of a mob of desperate Palestinian Gazans to snatch a new stronghold in northern Sinai from inert Egyptian troops (see separate article in this issue) was preventable by appropriate military action in good time to cut the Iran-armed and funded Palestinian group down to size.
This action was not taken.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s political sources believe that this situation is not beyond repair. Whenever during 60 years of statehood, the Israeli public was down in the dumps and despaired of a government not up to retrieving the country from acute peril or distress, some audacious military initiative turned up to save the day, restore Israel’s strategic standing and lift national spirits. The 1967 war was one example; another two were the 1976 Entebbe hostage rescue operation and the 1981 bombardment of Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
This cycle of despondency and euphoria appears to be an endemic element of Israel’s national dynamic. But will it persist?