A report to be released this week by the world's top nuclear regulator is expected to expose advances in Iran's nuclear program, inciting fears around the region, and especially in Israel, about a potential atomic attack. If the report confirms longstanding suspicions about Iran's nuclear ambitions, it could bring Israel one step closer to a military strike despite the significant challenges it would face in doing so.
Recently, Israel's leaders have been signalling allies, and particularly to the United States, that they are prepared to take military action to wipe out the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. And although a report on Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency likely won't produce any smoking guns, it could push Israel to act more proactively to eliminate what could be an existential threat to the nation.
"It would seem that Iran is getting closer to having nuclear weapons," Israeli President Shimon Peres said on an Israeli news program on Friday. "In the time that remains, we must urge the other nations of the world to act, and tell them that it is time to stand behind the promise that was made to us, to fulfill their responsibility, whether that means serious sanctions or whether it means a military operation."
While they ask for help, experts say that Israelis are prepared to act unilaterally to stall Iran's nuclear ambitions. However, although Israel has prevented nuclear programs from developing elsewhere in the region in the past, Iran's will be significantly more difficult to hobble.
In 1981, for example, after sensing a buildup of capabilities, Israel successfully blocked Iraq's nuclear ambitions by attacking a reactor in Osirak. More recently, in 2007, Israel raided a nuclear facility in Syria, causing a significant slowdown to the nuclear ambitions of Damascus. However, experts agree that pushing back Iran's nuclear program will require more than just one targeted raid and could take days to accomplish.
According to Peter Brookes, a senior fellow for national security affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Iran has learned its lesson from the debilitating attack in Osirak, where Iraq's nuclear capabilities had been centralized at above-ground facilities. In the thirty years since that incident next door, Iran has scattered its nuclear facilities around the country, even putting some underground or in mountainsides to protect them from air attacks.
As a result of Iran's tactics, Israel will likely have an "economy of force issue," says Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, a conservative policy research group, especially considering the distance between its own borders and potential targets in Iran. Since Iran is further away geographically than Iraq, they don't have enough long-range strike fighters to take out all the targets at once, he says.
Also, Iran is rumored to have as many as 300 nuclear facilities within its borders. Therefore, if Israel does go the military route, it will have to prioritize the targets that are the most threatening.
"You're [going after targets] at the five-yard line trying to cross the goal line, as opposed to something that's back at the 40-yard line," Brookes says. "Where they're doing the explosives testing, where they're enriching uranium is probably that red zone there where they're about to cross the nuclear goal line. That's where you want to concentrate your efforts."
So, while Israel may likely choose to leave many of the country's nuclear reactors alone, uranium enrichment sites, like the one at Fordo or near the holy city of Qom, could be potential targets. Israel could also go after a weapons testing facility at Parchin, located roughly 30 miles southwest of Tehran.
"The Israelis think there are seven or eight sites that are crucial to both [the civilian and military] programs, and the nuclear program will be set back the most by hitting those seven or eight sites," Berman says. "They're not going to look at the whole thing. They're just going to look at the most important facilities."
Since Israel doesn't share a border with Iran, its leaders will also have to decide where to fly the planes to carry out such attacks. Experts say that recent tensions between Turkey and Israel could rule out a northern route into Iran, and flying the shortest distance across—over Jordan and Iraq—may also be difficult now that the Iraqis control their own airspace.
The most likely option, Berman says, may be flying south and then west over Saudi Arabia, if the Saudis, who are also worried about Iran's nuclear program, give their permission or at the very least are willing to look the other way.
Israel's military strategy will also necessarily include defensive measures against retaliation by Iran.
"If you look at Israeli homeland security planning, I think they've pretty much internalized those risks," he says. "They know what Hezbollah is capable of. They know what Iran is capable of asymmetrically. They're not sanguine about it, but depending on how grave they see the threat from Iran, those are acceptable risks."
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