The saber rattling between Iran and Israel has resulted in verbal threats indicating the possibility of a future war between the two states. This has spurred weeks of media speculation, followed by an Israeli government statement clarifying it has no intention of launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran in March 2006.
Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz has recently cleared up misleading statements from Israeli officials regarding timetables. Halutz has indicated that once Iran begins enriching uranium, the clock starts ticking, and by 2008, he believes Iran will have the ability to produce a nuclear bomb. According to Israeli analysts, at the present time there is no military consensus of what Israel should do about it, and only the prime minister of a future government will make that decision after conferring with his security cabinet.
Most media attention has focused on when Iran might have nuclear capability and if Israel should act against Iran independently. Little attention has been paid to the possibility of an Iranian pre-emptive strike against Israel, despite the fact that this remains a major concern of Israel’s military advisers.
Israel’s current policy is to let Iran know, in no uncertain terms, what Israel’s retaliation will be in the event of an attack. Reserve Maj. Gen. Yaacov Amidror, former head of Israeli military intelligence, claims that Israel must make clear to the Iranians that “in building our capabilities, and by letting them know that we have these capabilities, we are very strong about the decision that if Israel will be attacked, it will be the end of Iran.”
Such strong declarations imply that Israel is not only developing their nuclear arsenal for second-strike capability, but also developing a strong deterrence policy, warning Iran that if the regime tries to destroy the Jewish state, Israel will do everything it can to ensure its own survival.
In a recent interview with Gen. Amidror, he indicated three essential elements the international community should seriously consider:
- All diplomatic efforts must continue to convince Iran to stop the nuclear process, followed by sanctions if Iran does not comply.
- At the same time, Israel has the right to enhance its ability to defend itself. In this context, the United Nations should put on the table a resolution that would be understood by the U.N. Security Council that Israel has the right to exist, and if attacked to react.
- If Israel is attacked by any Iranian missile, it is only the first step. The second step of retaliation will be very dangerous to the existence of Iran.
When I asked Amidror if that meant Israel might use the nuclear option, he replied, “that should be understood by the Iranians.”
Today, global diplomacy is in the forefront of efforts by the international community to dissuade Iran from going nuclear, while military options remain on the back burner. Yet, Israeli officials have signaled that by late March 2006, all diplomatic efforts will be exhausted. This implies that the Jewish state expects the international community to then focus on a united military alliance to stop Iran.
Amidror is convinced that efforts already conducted on the diplomatic front are too little too late because, so far, the Europeans have not been willing to risk sanctions.
“At this stage, the chances for success by using only political pressure is very slim. And, at the end of the day, the world will have to decide what is more dangerous – to attack this infrastructure of the Iranians, or to deal with an Iranian nuclear war. These are the two options,” Amidror stated. In the meantime, he acknowledged that Israel will continue to increase its military power. “Our experience with the international community is that we cannot build our security on the assumption that they will be on our side.”
Iran’s verbal threats
The current prime minister of Israel’s transitional government, Ariel Sharon, is perceived by some Islamists as getting closer to his goal of reaching a final status peace agreement with the Palestinians if he is re-elected. This poses a threat to the Iranian regime’s religious ideology. Iranian hardliners don’t want the Palestinians to sign a final peace deal with Israel. Instead, they want to re-conquer this region and re-establish Islamic rule.
Iran’s anti-Western and anti-Israel rhetoric has increased measurably in recent days. Iran’s current and former presidents continue to declare their intentions to eliminate the state of Israel. Iran has called on Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups to step up their violent resistance, while refusing to negotiate with Israeli leaders. These threats against Israel and the West confirm Iran’s intention to acquire advanced weapons systems that can “wipe Israel off the map” and destroy U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region.
According to Iranian expert, Menashe Amir, “diplomatic efforts have to go on, and Israel’s military threat has to be alive and touchable to deter Iran and force Iran to retreat from its stand.” In Amir’s opinion, most options regarding Iran are only temporary. “You cannot destroy know-how and technology. You can deter them and prevent them for an amount of time. The best remedy is to change the regime.”
There’s been a significant delay in the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program due to extensive pressure from the international community, specifically the United States and Europe. This buys time for Israel, allowing the IDF to reach greater degrees of accuracy in the performance of Israel’s Arrow and America’s Patriot anti-ballistic defense missiles. Earlier this month, Israel’s Arrow II successfully intercepted a dummy missile similar to Iran’s Shahab-3. The U.S. Patriot missile, deployed in Israel during both Gulf Wars, continues to be used as part of Israel’s defense arsenal. In the future, America and Israel will continue to coordinate efforts at shared anti-defense missile technology.
Uzi Rubin, a defense consultant to the IDF, was responsible for overseeing the first Arrow system. According to Rubin, Israel is in a much better position today to defend itself. “I think we can shoot down missiles attacking Israel. There are strategic implications. The nuclear threat is not about the chance of one single missile that can sneak through. It’s about Israel’s retaliatory efforts. They [Iran] have a slight chance or no chance at all of getting through. They will get a second strike from Israel, and that’s what they are concerned about.” Rubin sees this as Israel’s greatest deterrence policy. “Iran could not guarantee their people that they wouldn’t be wiped out by retaliation. That is the deterrence,” he added.
Despite the fact that there are no formal defense pacts between the United States and Israel, the level of strategic military cooperation remains high. The successful Juniper Cobra joint anti-aircraft missile defense test conducted during the spring of 2005 reportedly included at least 1,000 American troops who participated in the exercise.
Israel and the United States not only have a strategic interest in Iran’s weapons capability, but also those of North Korea. Over the past year, Israeli and American military officials have been comparing notes. Iran’s Shahab missiles are almost identical to N. Korea’s Nodong missiles. Both rogue states are trying to figure out how to put a nuclear payload on their long-range missiles. The Nodong reportedly can reach Alaska and Hawaii, while Iran’s upgraded Shahab can reach into Israeli territory. This has caused Israel and the United States to focus on ways of intercepting these missiles before they can reach land.
An October 2005 American Foreign Policy Council report states that retired Russian military specialists have been engaged in efforts to help Iran and North Korea share missile technology. Under a secret accord, Pyongyang reportedly provided Tehran with missile technology in exchange for Iran financing the missile deal.
According to Amidror, both countries have benefited from the multi-million dollar project. “We know for sure that the North Koreans helped the Iranians to build their infrastructure connected to missiles. It helped both sides. The North Koreans were in very deep need of money. And, the Iranians were in a position to make the whole process shorter … As far as we understand, they got more help from Pakistani experts about the nuclear systems than from North Korea.”
Estimates are that Iran and other Arab nations have some 1,000 missiles that can hit Israel. Syria alone is reported to possess 400-500 short-range missiles; the Egyptians are said to have 200 Scuds. Much of Israel’s defense budget is devoted to advanced anti-ballistic missile technology with the help of U.S. financial aid.
The Iranian nuclear program is a much more complex issue for Israel than in 1981 when Israel’s air force bombed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor. Iran has built many reactors, and it has explored two different nuclear routes – plutonium and uranium. Both systems are running, and the level of redundancy is very high. Many installations are deep under the ground, making it difficult for Israel’s air force to penetrate, even with advanced bunker-buster bombs.
There’s also the danger of Iran eventually selling nuclear weapons to other rogue states and to terrorist organizations. There’s concern of how Iran might use a nuclear threat for territorial gain, and how other nations might be influenced to follow suit, acquiring their own nuclear capability.
Recently, Iran successfully tested a missile in the Indian Ocean area that potentially could destroy a warship. Iran’s current missile systems are not only capable of hitting targets in Israel, but also hitting U.S. and other forces in the Persian Gulf, That’s why military analysts are insisting this is not an Israeli crisis, but an international one.
Meanwhile, the foregone conclusion about Iran’s future nuclear capability is that the new Iranian regime is intent on fulfilling its declared plan to destroy Israel and Western interests in the Middle East. There is every reason to believe that if there is not a concerted effort internationally to stop Iran, with world governments exploring every diplomatic and military means available, the result will be an Iranian regime continuing full speed ahead toward nuclear armament.
C. Hart is a 25-year veteran journalist in print and broadcast media, living in Israel since 1995, reporting on political, military and diplomatic issues in the Middle East.