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Cordesman on Folly of Israeli Attack on Iran

Back in May, Reuven Pedatzur, a lecturer in political science at Tel Aviv University and Director of the Galili Center for Strategy and National Security (and also an IAF pilot in the reserves), wrote an eminently lucid analysis of a March, 2009 report by Anthony Cordesman (pdf and summary) on Israel’s likelihood of success if it attacks Iran’s nuclear program.  The Haaretz headline for this article is entirely inaccurate and should be disregarded.  According to Cordesman and Pedatzur, the chance of success (defined as destroying or delaying by 1-3 years Iran’s securing a nuclear weapon) is not high enough to warrant the risk in pursuing an attack.  Among the many impediments are the following:

The first problem the authors point to is intelligence, or more precisely, the lack of it. “It is not known whether Iran has some secret facilities where it is conducting uranium enrichment,” they write. If facilities unknown to Western intelligence agencies do exist, Iran’s uranium-enrichment program could continue to develop in secret there, while Israel attacks the known sites – and the strike’s gains would thus be lost. In general, the authors state, attacking Iran is justified only if it will put an end to Iran’s nuclear program or halt it for several years. That objective is very difficult to attain.

…A strike mission on the three nuclear facilities would require no fewer than 90 combat aircraft, including all 25 F-15Es in the IAF inventory and another 65 F-16I/Cs. On top of that, all the IAF’s refueling planes will have to be airborne: 5 KC-130Hs and 4 B-707s. The combat aircraft will have to be refueled both en route to and on the way back from Iran. The IAF will have a hard time locating an area above which the tankers can cruise without being detected by the Syrians or the Turks.

One of the toughest operational problems to resolve is the fact that the facility at Natanz is buried deep underground. Part of it, the fuel-enrichment plant, reaches a depth of 8 meters, and is protected by a 2.5-meter-thick concrete wall, which is in turn protected by another concrete wall. By mid-2004 the Iranians had fortified their defense of the other part of the facility, where the centrifuges are housed. They buried it 25 meters underground and built a roof over it made of reinforced concrete several meters thick.

…Because the Natanz facility is so important, the Iranians have gone to great lengths to protect it. To contend with the serious defensive measures they have taken, the IAF will use two types of U.S.-made smart bombs. According to reports in the foreign media, 600 of these bombs – nicknamed “bunker busters” – have been sold to Israel…For these bombs to penetrate ultra-protected Iranian facilities, IAF pilots will have to strike the targets with absolute accuracy and at an optimal angle.

…Iran has built a dense aerial-defense system that will make it hard for Israeli planes to reach their targets unscathed. Among other things, the Iranians have deployed batteries of Hawk, SA-5 and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, plus they have SA-7, SA-15, Rapier, Crotale and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Furthermore, 1,700 anti-aircraft guns protect the nuclear facilities – not to mention the 158 combat aircraft that might take part in defending Iran’s skies. Most of those planes are outdated, but they may be scrambled to intercept the IAF, which will thus have to use part of its strike force to deal with the situation.

…All these obstacles are nothing compared to the S-300V (SA-12 Giant) anti-aircraft defense system, which…Russia may have secretly supplied to Iran recently…The Russian system is so sophisticated and tamper-proof that the aircraft attrition rates could reach 20-30 percent: In other words, out of a strike force of 90 aircraft, 20 to 25 would be downed. This, the authors say, is “a loss Israel would hardly accept in paying.”

If Israel also decides to attack the…reactor in Bushehr, an ecological disaster and mass deaths will result. The contamination released into the air in the form of radionuclides would spread over a large area, and thousands of Iranians who live nearby would be killed immediately; in addition, possibly hundreds of thousands would subsequently die of cancer. Because northerly winds blow in the area throughout most of the year, the authors conclude that, “most definitely Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE will be heavily affected by the radionuclides.”

And here are but a few of the repercussions that such a strike might have on the Middle East and the U.S. itself:

The study also analyzes the possible Iranian response to an Israeli strike. In all likelihood the result would be to spur Iranians to continue and even accelerate their nuclear program, to create reliable deterrence in the face of an aggressive Israel. Iran would also withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which until now has enabled its nuclear program to be monitored, to a certain degree, through inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. An Israeli strike would immediately put a stop to the international community’s attempts to pressure Iran into suspending development of nuclear weapons.

Iran would also, almost certainly, retaliate against Israel directly. It might attack targets here with Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, whose range covers all of Israel…In addition, the Iranians would use Hezbollah and Hamas to dispatch waves of suicide bombers into Israel. The Second Lebanon War showed us Hezbollah’s rocket capability, and the experience of the past eight years has been instructive regarding Hamas’ ability to fire Qassams from the Gaza Strip.

Hezbollah launched 4,000 rockets from South Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War, and their effect on northern Israel has not been forgotten: Life was nearly paralyzed for a whole month. Since then the Lebanese organization’s stockpile was replenished and enhanced, and it now has some 40,000 rockets. Israel does not have a response to those rockets. The rocket defense systems now being developed (Iron Dome and Magic Wand) are still far from completion, and even after they become operational, it is doubtful they will prove effective against thousands of rockets launched at Israel.

An Israeli strike on Iran would also sow instability in the Middle East. The Iranians would make use of the Shi’ites in Iraq, support Taliban fighters and improve their combat capabilities in Afghanistan. They also might attack American interests in the region, especially in countries that host U.S. military forces, such as Qatar and Bahrain. The Iranians would probably also attempt to disrupt the flow of oil to the West from the Persian Gulf region. Since the United States would be perceived as having given Israel a green light to attack Iran, American relations with allies in the Arab world could suffer greatly.

Even more important than all the common sense above is Pedatzur’s policy advice to the Israeli political, military and intelligence echelon (which will undoubtedly be ignored as it contains too much commons sense to be useful in Israel’s right-wing government deliberations):

…What should Israeli policy makers conclude…? That an IAF strike on Iran would be complicated and problematic, and that the chance of it succeeding is not great. That they must weigh all of the far-reaching ramifications that an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would have, and that they must not be fooled by promises…by Israel Defense Forces officers who present the attack plan as having good odds for success.

…It is questionable whether Israel has the military capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, or even to delay it for several years. Therefore, if the diplomatic contacts the Obama administration is initiating with Iran prove useless, and if in the wake of their expected failure the American president does not decide to attack Iran, it is likely that Iran will possess nuclear weapons in a relatively short time. It seems, therefore, that policy makers in Jerusalem should begin preparing, mentally and operationally, for a situation in which Iran is a nuclear power with a strike capability against Israel.

…In another year, or three years from now, when the Iranians possess nuclear weapons, the rules of the strategic game in the region will be completely altered. Israel must reach that moment with a fully formulated and clear policy in hand, enabling it to successfully confront a potential nuclear threat, even when it is likely that the other side has no intention of carrying it out. The key, of course, is deterrence. Only a clear and credible signal to the Iranians, indicating the terrible price they will pay for attempting a nuclear strike against Israel, will prevent them from using their missiles. The Iranians have no logical reason to bring about the total destruction of their big cities, as could happen if Israel uses the means of deterrence at its disposal. Neither the satisfaction of killing Zionist infidels, nor, certainly, the promotion of Palestinian interests would justify that price. Israeli deterrence in the face of an Iranian nuclear threat has a good chance of succeeding precisely because the Iranians have no incentive to deal a mortal blow to Israel.

Therefore, all the declarations about developing the operational capability of IAF aircraft so they can attack the nuclear facilities in Iran, and the empty promises about the ability of the Arrow missile defense system to contend effectively with the Shahab-3, not only do not help bolster Israel’s power of deterrence, but actually undermine the process of building it and making it credible in Iranian eyes.

The time has come to adopt new ways of thinking. No more fiery declarations and empty threats, but rather a carefully weighed policy grounded in sound strategy. Ultimately, in an era of a multi-nuclear Middle East, all sides will have a clear interest to lower tension and not to increase it.

I bring this article to your attention now primarily because of its sound policy advice which echoes precisely advice of pragmatists like Flynt Leverett and Roger Cohen in the pages of the N.Y. Times this week.  It is clear that the current Israeli government has no interest in pursuing the realistic proposals set forth by Pedatzur.  But they should be known and disseminated further.  Some time in the future they will be more politically relevant.  It is important to understand that in the midst of the “fiery declarations and empty threats” of Israeli generals and politicians there are Israeli analysts who are talking sense.  They should be heard and heard in Washington DC as well.

A point not raised in Pedatzur’s article, but which is directly relevant to current U.S. policy debates is this from the Cordesman report:

Iran should be engaged directly by the U.S. with an agenda open to all areas of military and non-military issues that both are in agreement or disagreement. Any realistic resolution to the Iranian nuclear program will require an approach that encompasses Military, Economic, Political interests and differences of the U.S vs Iran.

The fact that Anthony Cordesman, Flynt Levertt and Roger Cohen all agree on the above point is very significant.  Would that Barack Obama and his advisors were listening.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Jackie September 30, 2009, 4:50 PM

    Well, this is depressing and my only hope is that there are calmer heads in the ME than Netanyahu. I read a short opinion piece in the KC Star today, comparing Netanyahu’s speech at the UN to Churchill.

    P.S. I found Witty wandering around at Mondoweiss.

  • Moje October 1, 2009, 10:04 AM


    Richard, possibly the most important story regarding the Iran issue (definately the most eye-opening story I’ve read this year) and the silence from the usual crowd of critics and naysayers on this blog is deafening – only two comments, excluding this one.

  • Joe Citizen October 1, 2009, 11:30 PM

    I can’t believe it … i found a Jew that is NOT out of his fucking mind.

    you may not believe it … but most non-jewish, non-israeli, non-zionist folks are sick of ISRAEL and do not wish her well.

    go ahead, attack Iran, you fucking morons.

    we will see if the mid-east is a better place without ISREAL.

  • James Lewis October 10, 2009, 4:09 AM

    I hate to see any country aggressively attack another country. If Israel attacks Iran, I hope that Iran’s defensive response is so great and successful that it will prevent, forever, Israel’s ability to initiate another aggressive war.

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