An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear programme would be… challenging, which is putting it mildly. A joint Israeli-US attack on Iran’s nuclear programme would be… devastating, and that’s also putting it mildly.
And therein lies a problem for the Israelis as they ponder the wisdom of striking alone. Either way, if there is an attack, the whole world will have deal with the military and diplomatic fallout.
Last month’s flurry of media speculation about an Israeli strike seemed a carefully orchestrated warning by Israel’s government that it is deadly serious, but there was little to back up the idea of imminent attack. There were few other signs that war was about to break out.
The Israeli government appears to have pressed several buttons guaranteeing media attention. The most obvious was the heavy-handed statements by ministers, and the handing out of gas masks to the population. This is indeed a precautionary measure, but the timing, and the other measures taken, point to deliberate Israeli signalling.
The huge naval military exercise in the Gulf at the end of the month is also signalling, this time by the Americans. They are saying to the Israelis, “hang on” and, to Iran, “Be warned”.
The “hang on” advice will be listened to carefully in Israel. They really do not want to go it alone; some argue that they are incapable of a meaningful unilateral strike, although this cannot be ruled out.
The Israeli cabinet has to ponder the unknown. Firstly, if they go in before the US election, would President Barack Obama fully involve the US military in a war just weeks before the vote? Post-election, would a re-elected president feel less constrained? Would a president Romney throw his weight behind the view that Iran’s nuclear programme must be stopped at any cost? There is also the option of somehow coming to terms with a nuclear-armed Iran and the inevitable expansion of its regional power this would bring.
A nuclear-armed Iran would be emboldened to push on with its bid to become the de facto leader of the Muslim world. An increasingly nervous Saudi Arabia would probably try to counter this by obtaining its own nuclear arms. Other countries might follow suit.
However, given the constraints on Israel, it seems unlikely it will launch a unilateral strike this side of the US presidential election in November, and even afterwards it has reason to hesitate.
Consider a unilateral attack. How do the Israelis get to the targets?
Route one is a straight line — across Jordan, Iraq, into Iran. Jordan would probably not be able to react in time, and Iraq does not have an effective air force or air defences. Baghdad would tell Tehran the attack was coming and the Iranian defences would be waiting. This still might be the safest route for the Israeli Air Force (AIF), at the possible expense, though, of its diplomatic relations with Jordan.
Route two takes the AIF up the Mediterranean, with a sharp right turn along the Turkish/Syrian border, making sure they stay above Syrian territory, then through Iraq and on to Iran. This carries dangers from the Syrian Air Defences — although most of those guard Syria’s Western flank, not its northern border. A bigger problem is that Tehran will be given an even earlier warning.
Route three takes the AIF straight across Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The Saudis might want Iranian power destroyed, but they would still probably send their air force up to counter the Israelis because a failure to do so would make them complicit in the attack and thus likely to suffer Iranian retaliation.
All routes requires refuelling for the AIF’s F-161 and F-151 planes, which complicates the attack and puts more Israeli jets as risk.
If the IAF ever does get that far east, it has another problem — firepower. Israel has neither the number nor type of weapons available to the Americans. Its first strike might cause significant damage, and set back the Iranian nuclear programme, but it would not smash it. As each IAF sortie went in, it would be in increasing danger, all the air defences in the region would be on high alert and the IAF could not sustain more than a few missions over a few days.
Now add the Americans. Not only do they have their aircraft carrier fleets available in the Gulf, next to Iran, they have B-2 bombers armed with Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs designed to get through the type of re-enforced bunkers the Iranians have built inside mountains.
The US has enough cruise missiles and fighter bombers to sustain an air attack over several weeks, which may be enough time to effectively break the Iranian nuclear programme for years to come. The USA is also the only country which could attempt to keep the Strait of Hormuz open, and try to safeguard Saudi Arabia from retaliation.
All this points to the Israelis waiting until after the US election in November and then hoping the new or newly re-elected President will support them if they took what would be a monumental decision — to attack Iran.
If it ever happens, the Iranians would be likely to retaliate in many areas. Tehran’s conventional navy may not be much of a threat, but its tactic of “swarming” enemy ships with small, fast boats has the potential to be devastating. It has a battery of missiles capable of reaching across the Middle East, including all the way to Israel.
Iran’s allies in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza have the ability to reach Israel, and given what happened in the 2006 war against Hizbollah, Ehud Barak’s estimation of 500 Israeli civilian casualties seems very low. Iran’s reach does not stop there. It has the ability to hit Western targets in Latin American, Africa and Europe via its own agents and its proxy militia, Hizbollah.
All these factors will be on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s mind this holiday season. Doing nothing is one of several decisions he could take, but doing nothing will also have its long-term effect. This is a pivotal moment in Israel’s history.
Tim Marshall is Sky News Foreign Editor