With the publication of Sy Hersh’s recent New Yorker article detailing how Bush administration officials have ramped up US special forces activity in Iran, all eyes are once again fixated on the contentious Gulf state–and the potential of an Israeli-initiated proxy attack.
A senior defense official told ABC News there is an “increasing likelihood” that Israel will carry out such an attack, a move that likely would prompt Iranian retaliation against, not just Israel, but against the United States as well.
The official identified two “red lines” that could trigger an Israeli offensive. The first is tied to when Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility produces enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. According to the latest U.S. and Israeli intelligence assessments, that is likely to happen sometime in 2009, and could happen by the end of this year.
“The red line is not when they get to that point, but before they get to that point,” the official said. “We are in the window of vulnerability.”
The second red line is connected to when Iran acquires the SA-20 air defense system it is buying from Russia. The Israelis may want to strike before that system — which would make an attack much more difficult — is put in place.
Juan Cole is dismissive of the former benchmark:
This [first] “red line” is pure bullshit. There is no evidence that Iran is enriching uranium to weapons grade at all, much less that it is making enough highly-enriched uranium that it will be able to make a bomb in 2009.
You can’t use low-enriched uranium to make a bomb. It has to be highly enriched. Iran–as far as anyone has proved–is only making the low-enriched kind, and from all accounts it isn’t doing such a great job of that, either. If it made high-enriched uranium, that could be detected by the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who regularly inspect Iran’s facilities. I.e., it just isn’t there and the idea that Iran could have enough material to make a bomb by next year is ridiculous. Now if it turned all its centrifuges to this task, then maybe it could achieve that result, though most experts think Iran’s ability to enrich is still exaggerated. It could not highly enrich without creating atomic signatures detectable by the inspectors.
The IAEA says that there is no evidence–zilch, zero, nada– that Iran has facilities for enriching to weapons grade or that it is trying to do so
With that mind, along with last year’s all-but-forgotten NIE (y’know, the one that unequivocally states that Iran isn’t actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons), how potent a threat does Iran actually present? Geoffrey Kemp, director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center and special assistant to the president for the Middle East during the first Reagan administration, provides a Realist analysis of the ‘threat’ posed by Iran to the US, Israel, and Middle East, dubbing it “an imaginary foe”:
Rhetoric about Iran’s malign propensities has received much attention. A worst-case analysis, most vigorously argued by Norman Podhoretz, an advisor to former-presidential-candidate Rudolph Guiliani, would suggest that once Iran gets hold of nuclear weapons, its messianic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be inclined to use them, especially against Israel. Ahmadinejad and his coterie believe in scenarios that call for a bloody battle between true believers and infidels as the precursor for the return of the Hidden Imam and the establishment of a world government. This is why Iran, unlike other nuclear powers–including the Soviet Union and China during the cold war–may not be susceptible to the logic of deterrence. For this reason they must be stopped from getting the bomb. In the absence of any diplomatic solution this simply calls for a military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities. (1)
While such apocalyptic visions are frightening, to infer, as Podhoretz does, that Ahmadinejad is another Adolf Hitler does not take into account the reality of Iran’s strengths and weaknesses. [Iran] is an important regional power that wants to be taken seriously and have an influence on Middle East geopolitics. Yes, it has energy reserves, a talented, educated population, and a unique geographical position that strides both the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea–and it may even soon have the capacity to build nuclear weapons. But its ability to act as a regional hegemon is constrained by political, economic and military limitations. For all the rhetoric about Iran as a new Mideast colossus, the reality is that Iranians are not a martial people.
With regards to an attack on the part of Israel, Kemp evaluates the steps Israel would have to take to initiate a series of strikes against Iran:
Israel could conduct such an attack with cruise missiles from its small fleet of tactical submarines from locations in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. Yet these submarines have limited inventories of missiles. A purely seaborne strike could do little more than mount a token attack on the key Iranian facilities—especially the well-protected and deeply buried uranium enrichment facility at Natanz—unless it used nuclear weapons.
In terms of conventional air-strike capabilities the Israeli Air Force is certainly capable of reaching a number of targets in Iran. The problem is it would have to pass over either Turkey; Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq; or fly a nearly three-thousand-mile-long one-way route via the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. It is inconceivable that Turkey would give permission for the use of its airspace—though Israel might be prepared to ignore the wishes of the Arab countries. But once its aircraft enter Iraqi and Gulf airspace, they will encounter the full array of air defenses that the United States has established since the beginning of the Iraq War. Unless the United States gave permission for such an Israeli attack Israel would risk encountering U.S. anti-air action before it even reached Iran.
But, as Kemp notes, “the consequences of such an attack on oil markets, U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reaction of Iraq’s government and possible Iranian retaliation against Israel are awesome and suggest such action has a low probability of being authorized.” He does however acknowledge that, despite his conclusion that Israeli air strikes against Iran are counterproductive to US interests and regional stability (and won’t put much of a dent in Iran’s nuclear ambitions), an Israeli-initiated attack could still take place if “this is what the Bush administration wants to happen.” Despite this, Kemp remains convinced that “while some White House advisors may still contemplate such an action, it would be far more difficult to convince the secretaries of defense and state that another Middle Eastern war would serve American interests.”
In a recent analysis, Haaretz correspondent Yossi Melman cautioned those who would interpret the recent brinkmanship emanating from Tel Aviv as a signal that that military action on the part of Tel Aviv is a done deal:
Israeli leaders and officials have recently intensified their campaign against nuclear Iran. The messages from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Ambassador to Washington Salai Meridor and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz is clear: Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. Indeed Israel is very concerned by the likelihood that Iran, whose leadership has called for the Jewish state’s destruction, will be able to produce nuclear weapons.
These public statements, as well as closed talks between Israel’s leadership and leaders around the world, can be interpreted as “preparing the ground” for the possibility that Israel will attack Iran. It is also correct that all the bodies dealing with the “Iran case,” including the Mossad, Military Intelligence, Operations Directorate of the Israel Defense Forces, Israel Air Force and the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, are planning for the worst-case scenario. This is their professional duty. But one cannot conclude, as many have following a report in The New York Times (June 19) that an Israeli attack is certainly around the corner. Not only has such a decision not been made in any relevant forum in Israel – the question has not even been discussed.
Melman notes that a “significant factor” in any decision to strike Iran is the political landscape in Tehran:
Next May, presidential elections are scheduled in Iran. If Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decides he is fed up with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mostly because of the worsening economic situation, and prevents him from running for another term, or does not support him, this dramatic turn of events could also affect Iran’s nuclear program.
Marc Perelman, writing in The Forward, has more on Ahmadinejad’s domestic woes:
On June 1, Ahmadinejad’s archrival and likely 2009 opponent, Ali Larijani, was elected to the powerful post of speaker of parliament for one year. Within hours of Larijani’s victory, an Iranian media outlet reported allegations that close to $35 billion in oil proceeds — nearly half of Iran’s annual revenue from oil — was missing from government coffers.
“Electioneering has started in earnest,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Israel-based Iran scholar and co-author of a biography of Ahmadinejad. “Larijani wants to expose Ahmadinejad by casting light on corruption and even challenging him on the nuclear issue. In other words, he wants to beat him at his own game.”
While key decisions on Iranian national security and foreign policy remain firmly in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, observers say Larijani’s return to power suggests that Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad is on the wane. Much of the rising discontent among Iranians is centered on the economic woes the country has endured under Ahmadinejad, but among the ruling clerical elite there is also growing resentment of the president’s frequent invocation of religious principles to justify his policies.
And from Kamal Nazer Yasin of Eurasia Insight:
Concern is mounting among various conservative factions in Tehran that Ahmadinejad’s confrontational approach to international politics, combined with his thorough mismanagement of the economy, is undermining the traditionalists’ hold on power. While many continue to view Ahmadinejad as the man who can best unite key conservative constituencies — militant nationalists and Islamic pietists — traditionalists want to place greater restraints on Ahmadinejad, hoping that he becomes a less divisive figure in Iranian politics.
Presently, Larijani is viewed as one of the few politicians in Iran with sufficient stature to make Ahmadinejad listen to the complaints and desires of other conservative factions. In accepting the parliamentary speakership, Larijani made two key policy statements designed to put Ahmadinejad on notice. Concerning the nuclear issue, Larijani announced an intention to strengthen parliament’s oversight of the government. He went so far as to indicate that he might open an alternate, parliament-controlled channel of communication with the United Nations.
Whether all this is enough to deter ‘bomb bomb Iran’ hardliners within the Bush admin (or, more realistically, bolster the resolve of Defence Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Rice, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to resist acquiescing to hawkish demands) remains to be seen. But, as Kemp warns, “punishing the Iranians and setting back their nuclear program for months or years will reinforce the nationalism of the country and give the mullahs a further lease on life”–a view shared by noted Iranian human rights activists Akbar Ganji and Shirin Ebadi, who both note that the international community’s focus on Iran’s nuclear program has, according to Ganji, “pushed aside the struggle for democracy and human rights”, allowing the regime to exploit “the pretext of an “impending war” to crack down more severely on its opponents.”
Ebidi puts it succinctly: “As a human rights activist I tell the people of the world that if you want to help people in Iran the solution is not to launch an attack.”