A Coming Attack on Iran?

By: Greg C. Reeson

The United States and its European allies have tried for years to negotiate with Iran in an effort to resolve questions concerning Tehran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons. Thus far, those efforts have yielded no progress, and it appears that the patience of some key players is quickly wearing thin. Shortly after his inauguration, President Barack Obama stated that he wanted to see significant progress in diplomatically solving the Iranian nuclear issue by the end of his first year in office. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed that statement up with one of his own, offering Iran a similar timeline for resolving the impasse. Then, just a few days ago on July 5, Vice President Joe Biden said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos that Israel was a sovereign nation free to take any action it deemed necessary to protect its national interests. There was a time, not that long ago, when I thought an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities was improbable. Now I’m not so sure.

Of course, broad statements alone aren’t enough to suspect that attack plans are in the works. There are, however, other reasons to believe that the day of reckoning for Tehran’s nuclear program is drawing near. Iran continues to add centrifuges for producing highly enriched uranium, with thousands now in operation. At the same time, Tehran is working to perfect a long-range missile capability that could accurately deliver a nuclear warhead to a target. Some analysts believe Iran could be a nuclear-armed regional power as soon as 2011. Such a development would be a game changer in the Middle East, neutralizing the deterrent effect of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal and potentially sparking an arms race in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other states pursue their own nuclear weapons capability to counter growing Iranian power.

How would an Israeli attack unfold? Given that the United States would be unlikely to agree to over flight of Iraq for a military strike on Iran, Israel could transit Saudi Arabian airspace enroute to targets in Natanz, Esfahan, and Arak. Mossad chief Meir Dagan alluded to as much when he reportedly told Netanyahu recently that Riyadh would look the other way if Israeli aircraft flew over the Kingdom in the process of attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. Such a move would also not require U.S. consent. Israeli pilots have been training for quite some time for an attack on Iran, and air strikes would probably be accompanied by long-range missile attacks. A strong and sustained attack could be expected to inflict significant damage on Iranian nuclear facilities, but the blow would not be a lethal one. Iran has gone to great lengths to disperse, bury and protect its nuclear infrastructure, and while Tehran’s nuclear program would most certainly be set back, it would not be eliminated.

Israel is capable of conducting an effective attack, and neither the United States nor anyone else could do anything to stop it. The real concern is the potential aftermath. If history is any guide, the international community, under the auspices of the United Nations, would probably not do much. Arab states, and most likely some of America’s allies, would demand punitive sanctions, although the final product would undoubtedly be another meaningless Security Council resolution that is not enforced by anyone of any significance. Such was the case when Israel attacked Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, and in 2007 when Israel destroyed what is widely believed to have been a Syrian nuclear facility in the making. There would, of course, be official condemnations from nations within and outside the Middle East. But deep down there would be a strong sense of relief, for Arab countries worried about rising Persian power, and for Western nations who have failed on their own to deal with a defiant and belligerent Iran.

The big unknown is Tehran’s reaction. Iran could step up attacks against U.S. military personnel in Iraq, or stoke sectarian strife between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites. Hezbollah could also be prodded, with its tens of thousands of rockets, to attack Israeli cities from southern Lebanon, or Iran could funnel arms and money to insurgent forces in Afghanistan. Iran might launch its own long-range missiles at Israel, or it might have its operatives conduct worldwide terrorist attacks against Israeli and Western soft targets like embassies and private businesses. All of these are possibilities, and all must be taken into account before Israel decides to strike. The determining factor will be whether or not Israel believes the benefits of an attack outweigh the potential risks of an Iranian response. I suspect we’ll find out the answer soon enough.

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