Sunday, August 08, 2004

Could an Israeli preemptive strike stop Iran's nuclear program? 

One of the most significant preemptive attacks in recent history took place in June, 1981, when Israeli fighters bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, near Baghdad. American-made F-15's and F-16's made the 600-mile trip, surprised the Iraqi air defenses, and leveled the site in eighty seconds. Every plane returned to Israel intact. In response to the international condemnation that followed, Israel pointed out that Saddam Hussein was attempting to use the reactor to develop nuclear weapons. Although Iraq was at least two years, and perhaps as many as ten years away from a nuclear weapon, Israel argued that it needed to strike the reactor before it went online, to prevent radiological contamination of the surrounding area.

The United States joined the chorus of nations publicly condemning Israel's act. It was pointed out that Iraq was a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a document that Israel refused to sign. And Israel itself was suspected of possessing a significant nuclear arsenal. Members of congress pointed to a violation of the Arms Export Control Act, which prohibited the use of U.S. military equipment except in self-defense. Behind the scenes, however, the United States worked to defeat U.N. sanctions on Israel, and Israel got off with "a slap on the wrist."

The internal Israeli politics surrounding the raid on Osirak are no less fascinating. Ariel Sharon has said of the raid:

This was perhaps the most difficult decision which faced any (Israeli) government during all the years of the state's existence.

The Labor Party, then the party out of power, favored a diplomatic solution. Labor argued that France, which was providing Saddam Hussein with much of his nuclear technology, could be persuaded to stop exporting this technology. Likud Prime Minister Begin, however, felt that too much was at stake to leave things up to diplomacy. An intermediate approach was tried: sending terrorists to blow up components of the reactor being assembled near Marseilles before they were shipped to Iraq. While these tactics delayed the reactor's construction, they could not stop it completely. In the end, Begin, afraid his party would lose power and that Labor would not deal with the problem forcefully enough, decided to go ahead with the air raid.

Could Israel do it again, this time to Iran? There are numerous difficulties, both tactical and diplomatic. Iran is a lot farther from Israel than Iraq, and Iran has taken the lessons of Osirak to heart. Iranian nuclear facilities have been deliberately spread around the country, rather than concentrated at a single site. Moreover, many of the facilities were deliberately situated in urban areas that are hard to strike from the air. In 1981, Iraq was unable to effectively retaliate against Israel after the raid; but Iran has at least threatened to retaliate if Israel attacks its nuclear facilities. Whether these threats are credible I don't know.

Tactical difficulties aside, Israeli fighter planes on their way to Iranian nuclear sites would in all likelihood have to pass over Iraq. And for all intents and purposes, Iraqi airspace is American-controlled. An Israeli raid into Iran would almost certainly have to be coordinated in advance with the American air command in Iraq. Because of the long distances involved, Israeli aircraft might even need to base their strikes from airbases in Iraq, or use those bases for refueling. While the Americans could try to deny any advance knowledge of the strike, it would look awfully suspicious when American-made Israeli fighter jets pass over hundreds of miles American-controlled airspace on their way to Iran. The U.S. could hardly condemn the action with a straight face the way it did in 1981.

Finally, the internal political situation in Israel is not what it was in 1981. I don't know enough about Israeli politics to say what other options the government would consider, or which decisions are likely to prevail in the current political climate. But it's possible that the 1981 raid was born primarily of the very specific admixture of Begin's personal beliefs and the political conditions prevailing at the time. In the absence of those factors, Israel may find a less violent way to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem. The specter of a nuclear-armed Iran, while deeply unsettling, may not be as alarming to Israel as that once posed by a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. After all, Iran and Israel have a certain amount in common. The rest of the predominantly-Sunni Arab Middle East is a common enemy to both. It is at least plausible that a nuclear Iran could be tolerable to Israel's strategic interests.

All things considered, I'd say an Israeli raid on Iranian nuclear sites is unlikely. At the very least, it would be difficult to plan and execute such a raid. There are an awful lot of confounding factors. But it isn't completely out of the question.

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