An Israeli Strike on Iran
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An Israeli attack would likely concentrate on three locations: Isfahan, where Iran produces uranium hexafluoride gas; Natanz, where the gas is enriched in approximately half of the eight thousand centrifuges located there; and Arak, where a heavy water research reactor, scheduled to come on line in 2012, would be ideal to produce weapons-grade plutonium. It is conceivable that Israel may attack other sites that it suspects to be part of a nuclear weapons program if targeting data were available, such as the recently disclosed Qom site, whose location is known, or centrifuge fabrication sites, the location(s) of which have not yet been identified. The latter would be compelling targets since their destruction would hobble Iran’s ability to reconstitute its program. But attacks against the sites at Natanz, Isfahan, and Arak alone would likely stretch Israel’s capabilities, and planners would probably be reluctant to enlarge the raid further.
Israel is capable of carrying out these attacks unilaterally. Its F-16 and F-15 aircraft, equipped with conformal fuel tanks and refueled with 707-based and KC-130 tankers toward the beginning and end of their flight profiles, have the range to reach the target set, deliver their payloads in the face of Iranian air defenses, and return to their bases. The munitions necessary to penetrate the targets are currently in Israel’s inventory in sufficient numbers; they include Bomb Live Unit (BLU)-109 and BLU 113 bombs that carry two thousand and five thousand pounds, respectively, of high-energy explosives. These GPS-guided weapons are extremely accurate and can be lofted from attacking aircraft fifteen kilometers from their target, thereby reducing the attackers’ need to fly through air defenses. Israel also has a laser-guided version of these bombs that is more accurate than the GPS variant and could deploy a special-operations laser designation unit to illuminate aim points as it is reported to have done in the attack on the al-Kibar facility in Syria.
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These relatively upbeat ballistic assessments do not mean that the mission as a whole would be easy. On the contrary, a coordinated air attack would be complicated and highly risky. The three plausible routes to Iran involve overflight of third countries: the northern approach would likely follow the Syrian-Turkish border and risk violation of Turkey’s airspace; the central flight path would cross Jordan and Iraq; a southern route would transit the lower end of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and possibly Kuwait. All but two of these countries are to a greater or lesser degree hostile to Israel. The exceptions, Jordan and Turkey, would not wish their airspace to be used for an Israeli attack against Iran. Turkey recently canceled an annual trilateral exercise involving Israel, in part to signal its opposition to an Israeli strike. In any case, overflight would jeopardize Israeli diplomatic relations with both countries. With respect to Syria and Saudi Arabia, operational concerns would trump diplomatic ones. If either country detects Israeli aircraft and chooses to challenge the overflight using surfaceto- air missiles or intercepting aircraft, Israel’s intricate attack plan, which would have a razor-thin margin for error to begin with, could well be derailed.
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In assessing the likelihood of an attack, it is useful to look back on the origins of the Six Day War in 1967 and the raid on the Osirak reactor in Iraq. In each case, Israel attacked only after a long period of procrastination. In 1967, Washington’s hands-off posture tipped the balance in the cabinet in favor of preemption. In the case of Osirak, the Carter and Reagan administrations’ unwillingness or incapacity to intervene left Israel feeling cornered and compelled to act unilaterally. One lesson to be learned from this is that Israel is more likely to use force if it perceives Washington to be disengaged. Finally, if the Russian analysis is correct—namely, that the sort of crippling sanctions that would help stave off an Israeli attack would also drive Iran out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—then the probability of an Israeli strike would be correspondingly higher, since Iranian withdrawal from the NPT would itself be a casus belli. Moreover, Iran’s withdrawal would diminish the diplomatic opportunity cost of an attack.