While the American intelligence community is tearing itself apart in public over the question of whether Iran has accumulated sufficient uranium for a nuclear weapon, a quiet debate is going on behind the scenes in Israel.
Most Israeli intelligence analysts believe Iran is a few months away from the point of no return.
If pro-Israel president George Bush decided not to attack Iran, it is hard to see Barack Obama with his new policy of engaging Iran and the Muslim world ordering a strike. That leaves Israel with an awful dilemma — can it go it alone?
An attack on Iran will almost certainly cause a chain reaction in which proxies Hizbollah and Hamas will use Iranian-supplied weapons to engage the IDF on two fronts. But there is also a much more basic debate: can Israel actually pull it off?
Five squadrons have been equipped with F-15I and F-16I fighter-bombers, specifically designed to carry heavy payloads on long-range missions. The pilots have been trained over the Mediterranean, flying thousands of miles and conducting aerial refuelling.
Retired General, Professor Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, who headed the air force’s Intelligence Department and the Defence Ministry’s Research and Development Directorate, has said that Israel is “technically capable” of neutralising the Iranian threat.
But other experts are less certain. A decisive strike against the Iranian nuclear installations necessitates multiple strikes against a dozen targets. The circuitous route necessary to avoid over-flying Iraq without American agreement means they will need aerial refuelling to reach their targets. Israel has a handful of old converted Boeing 707s as aerial tankers, but the US has repeatedly refused to sell it any more.
The lack of tankers limits the number of bombers that can reach Iran, so any attack would have to be in waves.
It is not yet clear whether Iran already has the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system it recently bought from Russia. But even without it, any subsequent waves of bombers would be vulnerable to fire from the ground.
Search-and-rescue helicopters would be needed to extricate downed pilots. These helicopters have insufficient range and would have to be ship-based. The proximity of Israeli warships could give Iran another early warning.
Israel’s pilots have been trained to risk their lives. But for a country going through national trauma over the prolonged captivity of Gilad Shalit, the thought of consigning dozens of pilots to an uncertain fate in Iranian captivity is almost unbearable.