Military Action Against Iran: Impact and Effects
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This, however, is the current situation, and what is of much greater concern to Israel, is Iran’s longer- term commitment to developing more powerful ballistic missiles, especially those using solid fuel, which have much more rapid pre-launch procedures. Iran already has extensive experience of casting solid fuel propellants for short-range missiles such as the Zelzal and Fateh-110, and in November 2008 a new and very much larger solid fuel two-stage missile, the Sajjil was test-fired. This is reported to have a range of 2,200 to 2,400 km and have a payload capacity broadly similar to the Ghadr-1. Since the first test-firing, there have been two more tests of the Sajjil, but there are no reliable reports that it has yet been deployed. From an Israeli perspective, apart from the solid fuel aspect, the main significance of the Sajjil development is that it appears to have been undertaken with a large element of indigenous Iranian capability. On present rates of progress, Iran may be capable of deploying numerous Sajjil missiles within five years.
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While these would be the main targets, there might also be attempts to kill elements of the technocratic leadership, especially those experienced technocrats who are responsible for planning and even leading Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes. While some might be based in locations close to the nuclear and missile facilities, such as Natanz, Tabriz and Khorramabad, many would be based in Tehran. It follows that one consequence of the need to target such people as well as factories, research centres and university departments, is that war would come directly to the capital of the country for the first time since the “war of the cities” (the exchange of Scud missile attacks during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s). With many civilian casualties, Iran would have the feel of a country at war, rather than one receiving specific, if substantial, attacks in relatively remote localities. This may be at variance with accepted opinion. In the public mind, there is the idea that a military strike on Iran, like that on Iraq in 1981, would consist primarily of a series of bombing attacks on nuclear infrastructure - it would, in effect, be a “war against military real estate”, the aim being to destroy physical targets such as centrifuge cascades. While these would indeed be hit, at least as important would be the requirement to do as much damage as possible to Iranian attempts to resuscitate a nuclear research and development programme after the attack. It is for this reason that so much attention would be focused on technical personnel, with a determined effort to kill as many such people as possible. Since this would include university facilities and other research centres, the end result would be an attack with a very broad effect.
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In terms of Iranian domestic politics, three issues are relevant to the current analysis. One is that the Ahmadinejad government has, to an extent, regained control of public order in the wake of extensive opposition after last year’s election, but there is no guarantee that this will last in the long-term, in spite of repressive methods being used. (23) A second is that the economy remains in deep trouble with even the current high price of oil having little effect. The third is that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is operating increasingly as a state within a state and would almost certainly benefit from any major external crisis. (24) There is thus a sense, in which an attack on nuclear and related facilities by Israel would be of real political value to the Iranian leadership, and especially the leadership of the IRGC. Whatever the unpopularity of the Ahmadinejad government, most political analysts within Iran are convinced that an attack on the country would result in a high degree of political unity right across the spectrum of opinion, however unpopular the government of the day.
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In such circumstances, it is fundamentally unacceptable to the “political right” in the United States for a “rogue” state, such as Iran, to be allowed to get even remotely near having its own nuclear capability. Such a “deterrent” would greatly limit US options in the region, and would provide a threat to its closest ally – Israel. While the Obama administration may have persisted with the diplomatic option, many others in Washington believe that the destruction of the suspected nuclear weapons infrastructure and associated facilities is going to have to be undertaken at some stage. One influential commentator has argued that a direct US military strike on Iran must be considered and has cited polling evidence to show that there would be majority domestic support for this.
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Israel has maintained a nuclear capability since the late 1960s and is believed to have up to 200 nuclear warheads, principally for delivery by aircraft or the Jericho series of surface-to-surface missiles. It may also be developing nuclear warheads for submarine-launched cruise missiles – Israel currently has three German-built Dolphin-class submarines with two more due for delivery in 2012. Israel believes it essential to its security that it is the only state in the region with a nuclear capability. Since the Iranian Revolution at the end of the 1970s, successive Israeli governments have regarded Iran as the greatest long-term regional threat to its security.
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Units of the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Iraqi experimental Osiraq reactor near Baghdad in 1981, limiting Iraq’s potential to take the plutonium route to nuclear weapons. More recently, on 6 September 2007, Israeli strike aircraft attacked a facility in Syria that was a suspected nuclear site, possibly a nuclear reactor involving North Korean personnel in the early stages of the construction. (8) The 1981 Baghdad target was within range of Israeli aircraft whereas the Iranian facilities were, until recently, at the limit of Israeli Air Force capability. That has now changed with the deployment of long-range versions of the US F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft – the F-15I Ra’am and the F-16I Sufa. 25 of the F-15I are now in squadron service together with a force of 102 F-16I aircraft in four squadrons. (9) Deliveries of the planes started in 2003 and are now complete. The Israeli Air Force is also acquiring 500 earth penetrating bombs from the United States for use against underground facilities. There are unconfirmed reports that some or all of the F-15I strike aircraft have been fitted with conformal fuel tanks to increase range, but the Israeli Air Force does in any case have a fleet of tanker aircraft. The most significant of these are the KC-707 Re’em aircraft. Although based on the elderly Boeing 707 airframe, these have been substantially upgraded and an eighth plane was recently added to the fleet, following a $23-million contract with Israeli Aerospace Industries.
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Iran’s self-perception is of one of the world’s historic powers. There is a widely-held belief that a high- technology future is an essential part of its place in the world, but this is coupled with a strong feeling of current vulnerability. Iran looks back to several thousand years of history and believes that major power status is feasible, given the combination of massive fossil fuel resources, a large, well-populated and youthful country and a geographical position that puts it at the heart of an immensely significant region. While Iran’s oil and gas reserves are not fully developed and there are many problems of poor- quality equipment, the reserves themselves are remarkably large. On most estimates, Iran’s oil reserves amount to around 11% of the world total, approximately four times the size of US reserves including Alaska and the offshore reserves of the Gulf of Mexico. Iran’s natural gas reserves are even larger, comprising around 15% of the world total.