Shadow of War Looms as Israel Flexes its Muscle


Published on Sunday, June 29, 2008 by the Guardian/UK
by Peter Beaumont/Rory McCarthy/Tracy McVeigh/Paul Harris


Israeli fighter jets flew 1,500 kms across the Mediterranean this
month, in a dry run for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Tehran
has threatened to treat such a raid as a declaration of war. As the
Middle East braces itself for a stand-off of epic proportions, how
close is the region to that nightmare scenario?

The meeting at the home of Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not
supposed to be public. The man invited into Olmert's official residence
in Jerusalem was Aviam Sela, architect of Operation Opera in 1981, when
Israel launched a long-range strike against Iraq's Osirak nuclear
reactor. Regarded as a brilliant aviation tactician, in particular in
the field of in-flight refuelling, Olmert's office tried to play down
the meeting. But the rumours in Israel's defence establishment were
already flying.

Sela, according to sources close to the meeting, had been called in so
that Olmert could ask his opinion on the likely effectiveness of a
similar raid to Opera on the nuclear installations of Iran.

Peace in the Middle East depends on Sela's and Israel's answer.
Yesterday, responding to the Israel's increasingly bellicose language,
Iran's top Revolutionary Guards Commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari,
warned that it would respond to any attack by hitting Israel with
missiles and threatened to control the oil shipping passage through the
Straits of Hormuz.

If Israel were to attack it would have to overcome considerable
practical problems. There is no one who believes that an attack on
Iran's nuclear facilities would be anything like Opera, when eight
F-16s and a similar number of F-15s crept into Iraq. For one thing, in
pursuing its nuclear ambitions, Iran took note of the Osirak lessons.
Its facilities, including a light water reactor at Bushehr and the
controversial uranium enrichment process at Natanz, are dispersed and,
in the case of Natanz, protected by up to 23 metres of hardened
concrete.

To destroy the uranium centrifuge halls at Natanz alone, analysts have
argued, might require up to 80 5,000lb penetrating bombs dropped in
almost simultaneous pairs to allow the second bomb to burrow through
the crater of the first. Opera required just a handful of bombs.

To strike even the bare minimum of so-called target sets associated
with Natanz and Bushehr without the assistance of US cruise missiles
fired from their ships in the Persian Gulf would require a massive
military effort and, according to the Israeli air force's own
assessments, might risk the loss of large numbers of its aircraft for a
temporary impact.

But the rumours keep circulating and the hushed briefings are
multiplying. In the Israeli Prime Minister's traditional round of
interviews on the eve of Passover earlier this year, Olmert vowed that
Iran `will not be nuclear'.

Since then, a series of senior Israeli officials have added their own
warnings of the threat of an Israeli strike. Most strident has been
Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz who said earlier this month that
Israel would have no choice but to attack Iran.

Other officials, too, such as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Israeli
ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor, have made less inflammatory
remarks but in a similar vein.

If the rhetoric, coming in the midst of an effort by the so-called G5+1
to persuade Iran to accept incentives to suspend uranium enrichment, is
alarming, then so too are Israel's ostentatious preparations for war.

Earlier this month, the Israeli Air Force conducted one of the largest
aerial exercises in its history, flying 100 F-15 and F-16 fighter jets,
supported by midair fuel tankers and rescue helicopters, 1,500kms west
over the Mediterranean. That precisely matches the distance from Israel
to Iran's nuclear facilities.

And while some of the messages amount to signalling, to warn Iran as
well as the EU and the US that Israel does not intend its nuclear
monopoly in the Middle East to be challenged, it is clear that Israel
has launched an aggressive information campaign apparently designed to
soften up public opinion for the case for war, reminiscent of the
run-up to the war against Iraq. Indeed, some of the same cast are back
on stage, not least the former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton,
who has loudly been making the case for an Israeli strike.

Academics and journalists who have recently visited Israel have come
back from meetings convinced the country is getting ready for war. The
campaign has been assisted by the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee (Aipac) in the US and the Britain-Israel Communications and
Research Centre in the UK, two influential Jewish lobby groups who have
brought over experts to brief the media.

Last week, Bicom invited journalists to meet Shmuel Bar, a former
military intelligence officer and civil servant in the Prime Minister's
Office. Now an academic, Bar writes on Iranian defence doctrine. On
Monday the same organisation will be hosting a member of Israel's
security cabinet, Isaac `Bouji' Herzog, who once again will answer
questions, among other issues, on the threat posed by Iran.

And at the centre of the present flurry of activity is the question of
exactly what threat is posed. The National Intelligence Estimate, the
official view of the US intelligence community is that Iran ceased work
on its secret weapons programme in 2003 (a view disowned by George
Bush). Israel's assessment is that Tehran is two years from a bomb.

The mutual suspicion between Israel and Iran is at historic levels.
Israel cites the existential danger posed by an Iranian regime that has
suggested that the Jewish state would `vanish from the page of time'.

Iran points to statements such as the one made last week by the Israeli
Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defence chief.
In an interview published in the Russian press, Ben-Eliezer said that
Iran would be annihilated if it tried to attack Israel. In truth,
Israel's concerns are as much concerned with regional strategic issues
as they are with the threat posed by Tehran, and in particular
maintaining the status of sole nuclear power in the region. A repeat of
the 2006 attack on Tehran's ally Hizbollah in Lebanon would be more
difficult to contemplate with a nuclear Iran. By the same argument, a
nuclear Iran might embolden not only Hizbollah but Hamas in Gaza, too.

What is clear is that the push inside the Israeli establishment for a
strike is not being driven by the timetable of Iran's mastery of the
technical aspects alone, but by geopolitical considerations. That point
was reinforced by Bar last week when he identified a window of
opportunity for a strike on Iran - ahead of the November presidential
election in the United States which could see Barack Obama take power,
and possibly engage with Syria and Iran. An Obama presidency would
close that window for Israel, says Bar.

`The support is almost unanimous for this in Israel. One hundred
percent. I don't think there is anybody within Israel who sees Iran's
threats as rhetoric. So the question is, when do we reach that bridge?'
he said, adding that the West is naive to believe that any kind of
negotiation will work. `The only thing that can stop Israel's intent
[to bomb] would be extremely robust steps on the part of the West - a
blockade of Iranian refined oil, something that would indicate that
steps were meant to force regime change. Since that is not on the
cards, only bombing Iran will work.

`If it's an Israeli attack they will put pressure on Iran's Arab
neighbours to respond to the problem also. It will be
counter-productive for Iran to launch a major attack on Israel.

`So they will launch a few rockets at us; that is not devastating for
Israel,' he said with a shrug. Israel's case, as put by Bar, is that
`most of the Arab Middle East will side with the hope that Israel does
the job and not the US. And make no mistake that they all want the job
done. They will condemn it in public of course and then get on with
their lives,' he said.

Har added that there would probably be another war with Lebanon - `a
month or two months, that is as long as the Middle East has wars for.
We can easily cope with that. That's the nature of life in this region.
We will set the Iranian programme back and yes, then we will need to
come and take it out of existence again after that timeline. There will
be no total conclusion, I hesitate to call it the `final solution', but
there are no such solutions.'

But despite Israel's insistence that it has the will to go it alone, it
is aware that it must secure at the very least the agreement of the US
to turn a blind eye. And there are signs that the Bush White House is
deeply split on the issue of any possible Israeli military strike
against Iran.

Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney and the remnants of the
neoconservative lobby in Washington are believed to be sympathetic to
the idea. However, there are also those in strong positions, such as
Defence Secretary Robert Gates and some senior military chiefs, who are
thought to be privately opposed to such a move. `If it were up to Bush
and Cheney they would want to see this thing done,' said Larry Johnson,
a former top CIA analyst. `But they are now up against a lot of
fundamental military realities that make it hard. The military has been
pushing back against this.'

Right-wing think-tanks, however, such as the American Enterprise
Institute and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have been
vocal in their advocation of confronting Iran. Indeed, the institute
recently produced a report on a theoretical military attack on Iran
authored by Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt, entitled `The Last
Resort: Consquences of Preventive Military Action Against Iran'.

The study fell short of recommending such an attack but it did provide
an exhaustive argument on why and how such an attack would work. That
led critics to dub it a blueprint for war with Iran. It suggested that
the possible best line of attack would in fact not be against Tehran's
nuclear programme but against its oil industry, thus cutting off the
source of Iran's current wealth. `The political shock of losing the oil
income would cause Iran to rethink its stance,' the report suggested.

It comes at a time when a resolution has been put forward in Congress
calling for a naval blockade of Iran led by US warships. The proposal
calls for the United States to lead an international effort to cut off
the country by sea, something that would almost certainly by seen as an
act of war by Iran. The resolution has got huge support from Israeli
politicians and the country's highly effective lobbying industry in
Washington, led perhaps inevitably by Aipac, which has made the issue
its legislative priority. `The war drums are beating. There is no doubt
about that,' said Johnson.

A recent flurry of bilateral meetings between senior US and Israeli
military officials in recent weeks has contributed to a sense that
planning for a strike may be far advanced. Admiral Michael Mullen, the
chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, travelled to Israel last week
for the second time in seven months, cutting short a tour of Europe to
meet with Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel's military chief.

Also last week, a senior Israeli foreign ministry official reportedly
travelled to Vienna for a rare meeting with the International Atomic
Energy Agency to encourage them to work more quickly on strategies to
block Iran's nuclear programme. Although an American government
spokesman in Washington said the meeting had been scheduled several
months in advance, he added: `Obviously, when Chairman Mullen goes to
Israel and speaks with the Israelis, they will no doubt discuss the
threat posed by Iran.'

Paradoxically, Israel has adopted a much less confrontational approach
elsewhere in the region: there is the admittedly tenuous Gaza ceasefire
and a prisoner swap with the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah is
close. There are indirect talks under way with the Syrians and Israel
has called for a direct dialogue with Lebanon. Talks with the
Palestinians, however frail, none the less continue.

And amid the talk of windows of opportunity and the dry runs for
missile strikes, more moderate voices are managing to make themselves
heard. Ephraim Halevy, a former head of the intelligence agency Mossad,
told a meeting of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem on Tuesday that Iran's
nuclear ambitions did not represent an existential threat to Israel.

`I am convinced that Israel cannot be destroyed,' Halevy said. `We
should not sink into the doldrums of `Israel is on the verge of
extinction'.' Ultimately, he said, the United States would talk to
Iran, and Israel needed to be part of that dialogue.

Martin Van Creveld, Israel's leading military historian, said there
were some in the Israeli government who were indeed serious about a
military option. But he said the Iranian president, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, would probably not be affected by Israel flexing its
military muscles. `I would be very surprised if the Iranians cave in. I
think they are going to follow the same road as every nuclear country
has followed since the 1960s [including Israel]; namely they are going
to build nuclear weapons without admitting it,' he said. `And I don't
see this made the world into a worse place. I am convinced the outcome
is going to be a balance of power and I personally think that a nuclear
Iran may not be such a bad thing for the world¦ Iran is a third-world
country. I don't see why people are so afraid of it.'

Prime Minister Olmert, and the hawks around him, may take some
convincing of that.