The past week’s spate of signals that Israel might be preparing a strike against Iranian nuclear targets – an attack which would almost certainly provoke a wave of retaliation engulfing Hizbullah and Lebanon in regional conflict – amounts to nothing more than posturing to prod the West in negotiations with the Islamic Republic, a number of analysts told The Daily Star.
The New York Times reported on June 20 that Israel had carried out military maneuvers simulating a long-range bombing run and attendant rescue operations, but internal political considerations in Israel, the US and Iran’s Arab neighbors augur against such a strike, with the show of force designed instead to push the US and European to move more forcefully against Iran’s nuclear program, the analysts said.
“This is part of Israeli pressure on the US and the world community,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “This is part of an ongoing, clear and fairly predictable campaign of saber-rattling to put pressure on Europe and the US. This serves to remind Iran that the military option is still on the table.
“I don’t think [an attack] is going to happen. I don’t think there’s a sense that military action can be or will be taken now.”
Israel would not be able to hit Iran without the consent and assistance of the US, because Iran’s response would be sure to include US targets, Salem added. Mohammad ElBaradei, head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, said on June 21 that a strike on Iran would “transform the Middle East region into a ball of fire.”
“The US would have to give a red or green light,” he said. “It cannot be a decision made solely by Israel. It would be interpreted as a US decision, and the repercussions will be as such.”
“This is not Osirak in 1981,” Salem said, referring to the unilateral Israeli air raid in June 1981 against the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak that Israel feared was part of a drive for nuclear weapons.
The US would not likely assent to an Israeli strike on Iran, as long as some 150,000 US troops are stationed in neighboring Iraq, said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, who is working on a book about Iran’s role heading regional opposition to the US and Israel.
“There could be no such thing as an isolated Israeli attack on Iran,” she said. “It would have dire consequences for the US in Iraq. Because the US has so much at stake [in Iraq], there’s no way they would give the Israelis carte blanche. If the US is not ready to provide that sort of cover for a regional war, then Israel is not willing to go it alone.”
“Israel and the US are not seen in isolation from one another. An attack on one necessarily means an attack on the other,” Saad-Ghorayeb added.
Iran’s counter-attack would “of course” include Iranian-financed Hizbullah and bring Lebanon into a regional conflict pitting Israel, the US and US allies against Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and Syria, said Saad-Ghorayeb, who wrote the 2002 book “Hizbullah: Politics and Religion.”
“Israel knows full well that any attack would draw the Palestinians, Hizbullah and Syria into the game and would involve the US as well,” she added. “That would necessarily entail regional war.
“It would be a strategic blunder at this point for Israel. Can they take on Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and Syria?” she asked.
At this point, however, Israel and the US are simply not readying the military assets and logistics structure needed in the Gulf to back an attack, said retired General Elias Hanna, who teaches political science at Notre Dame University. The US Navy says it has one aircraft carrier group, led by the USS Truman, and the Marines have one combat group in place – nowhere near the hardware necessary to suppress Iranian air defenses, mount recovery operations or assess damage after any strike, he added.
“You have no signals, no indications” of preparation, he said. “The whole system is not working” toward an attack, he added. “The Israelis are sending messages to the Europeans, as well as the to the US, that our patience is over.”
Attacking nuclear sites in Iran represents a far more complicated operation than the 1981 Osirak raid or the bombing run last September against a suspected nuclear outpost in Syria, Hanna said. Iran has used the “redundancy approach,” locating its nuclear facilities widely throughout the country – a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, a plant which could produce plutonium in Arak and a uranium-conversion center in Isfahan – to force any would-be attacker to fly numerous sorties in different regions, Hanna added.
In addition to the military obstacles facing Israel, politically crippled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has little chance of cobbling together support for an attack, Saad-Ghorayeb said. After US businessman Morris Talansky testified last month that he had years ago given Olmert about $150,000 in unreported slush funds, Olmert staved off the threat of early elections by agreeing on Wednesday to put his post as head of the Kadima party to a vote before October. Even if Olmert wanted to distract the Israeli public by waging war, his Cabinet partners in the Labor party would not allow it, Saad-Ghorayeb added.
“Who said Labor wants to bolster the Kadima party by supporting a war against Iran?” she asked.
Moreover, the imminent prisoner swap between Israel and Hizbullah involving Samir Kontar reveals an Israel breaking long-held traditions against releasing prisoners with the blood of Israeli civilians on their hands – Kontar was convicted of killing a 4-year-old girl, Saad-Ghorayeb said.
“I don’t think this is the sign of a country that is going to launch an attack on the greatest power in the region,” she added. “I don’t think it’s very likely that Israel will attack Iran.”
In the US, theories continue to circulate about a US strike against Iran, but President George W. Bush appears to be pursuing a multilateral, consensus approach on Iran, and the US electorate would likely punish his Republican party severely in November’s elections for another attack in the Middle East, the analysts said.
“I don’t think the American public is going to support another war in the region,” Saad-Ghorayeb said. “I don’t think the US or Israel, or any of their allies in the region, can handle another regional war.”
US allies in the Gulf, for their part, are reaping the benefits of record oil prices, but they would be loathe to see oil prices soar higher if it meant the regional conflagration certain to ensnare them in the aftermath of an attack on Iran, the analysts said.
Iran’s Arab neighbors “don’t want a nuclear Iran, but … the Gulf countries do not want any rush into war at all,” Salem said.
Bombing Iran would also undo any progress the West has made in its negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program – Iran might instead decide to rapidly develop nuclear weapons, while the Islamic Republic would gain a measure of sympathy from across the Middle East and the country’s most conservative groups would use the attack to consolidate power, Saad-Ghorayeb said.
However, just as Israel’s recent maneuvers endeavor more to push the negotiating track along, Iran’s alleged drive for nuclear weapons is in the end more about geopolitical power than a concrete military plan, said Saad-Ghorayeb.
“It has more to do with strategic interests” in the region, she said. “Wiping out Israel with a nuclear bomb is much less likely on a practical level.”
Obscured by all the ado over possible attacks is an underlying false premise that Iran would actually use a bomb, if the West does not intervene militarily to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, said Hanna. Despite the virulent rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran knows about Israel’s nuclear arsenal and will make the rational choice, he added.
“Israel has second- and third-strike capability,” Hanna said. “Iran is a rational player – they will not do it.”
While some speculate that Israel needs to attack before its staunch ally Bush leaves office next January, the truth is that Iran is still far from having the capability to strike Israel with a nuclear warhead, Hanna said. Regardless of rumors about the Iranians encountering difficulty with the uranium-enrichment process, Iran will face a far greater hurdle in making the transition from developing a nuclear device to building the weapons system to deliver a nuclear bomb, he added. For example, South Africa chose to abandon its nuclear arsenal because, in addition to geopolitical concerns, it could not develop the aerial capability for a nuclear strike, he added.
Despite the signals pointing against an attack on Iran in the short term, the long-term prognosis appears less rosy, the analysts said. Despite the arguments against Iran using a nuclear weapon, broad agreement still exists – among the US, Europe, Russia, China and many Arab nations – that Iran should not have a nuclear arsenal, which could eventually lead to a strike against Iran and a possible regional conflagration, Salem said.
“There’s pretty wide consensus that many parties feel that, in the end, if all else fails … a military option may be possible,” Salem said. “The nuclear issue is a red line. It’s not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s basic. If push came to shove, there probably would be an attack. It’s a pretty wide consensus.”