Will Israel attack Iran’s nuclear capabilities? If so, how will it go about it? What will be the consequences?
A PSYWAR has been mounted from Israel regarding the strong likelihood and imminence of an attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities should the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna report --as it is widely expected to-- that Iran has repaired the damages suffered by the computer network of its enrichment complex as a result of a virus (Stuxnet) allegedly planted by the Israeli intelligence and has resumed its enrichment operations full steam with the objective of acquiring weapons grade enrichment capability.
Such a report would mean that Israel’s sabotage operations to paralyse the enrichment facilities on which it was relying as an alternative to direct military strikes have failed to produce the desired results leaving it with no other option but direct military strikes to destroy the enrichment facilities that Iran has built up.
Should Israel undertake a military strike and if so, when? This question is being debated now in Israeli political, military and intelligence circles. It is apparent that any Israeli military strike may have to be unilateral because the West--including the US-- are not prepared to support a military strike. They feel that paralysing sanctions should be given an opportunity to force Iran to see reason and make Iran give up its plans for achieving a capability for weapons grade enrichment.
Israel’s faith in sanctions and sabotage as options to neutralise Iran’s capabilities has weakened and there is growing conviction in Israeli political, military and intelligence circles that the time for a direct military strike against Iran has arrived. If Israel does not act before November-end, the onset of winter and the heavy cloud cover during winter may make precise missile strikes difficult.
Political and diplomatic pressure from the US and other Western countries is unlikely to have any impact on Israeli decision-making which will be influenced purely by the assessment of the military and the intelligence agencies regarding the likelihood of success of a military operation.
Success means success in destroying Iran’s enrichment capabilities and success in destroying Iran’s capability for retaliation against Israel. When Israeli aircraft bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor under construction with French assistance in June,1981, the dangers of a retaliatory strike by Iraq against Israel were not a worrisome factor in the planning. It was known that Iraq did not have such a capability.
Iran has a strong retaliatory capability against Israel in the form of its missiles. Its Air Force is facing problems due to the reported unserviceability of many of its planes because of the sanctions. It, therefore, plans to rely on its missiles for a retaliatory strike on Israel. The Israeli forces will, therefore, have to either destroy the Iranian retaliatory capability in advance before attacking the nuclear facilities or attack the two simultaneously.
The final decision on a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities will depend on the confidence of the Israeli military and intelligence leadership that it can destroy Iran’s retaliatory capability through a pre-emptive strike.
While serving officers of the Israeli intelligence seem to be confident that a neutralisation of Iran’s nuclear facilities and retaliatory capability will be doable, some retired officers of the Israeli intelligence such as Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad, the Israeli external intelligence agency, and Yuval Diskin, former head of the Shin Bet, the security agency, have expressed misgivings on this. They have advised the Government against any adventurist impulses.
If Israel succeeds in destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities and retaliatory capability, Teheran will have two options-- block the Strait of Hormuz thereby creating serious dislocations in oil supply or undertake a long-term sabotage operation directed against the West without affecting the oil supply.
Blockage of the Strait of Hormuz will have an impact not only on the global economy, but also on Iran’s own economy at a time when its economy is already facing serious difficulties due to the economic sanctions. Success of a long-term sabotage operation will be doubtful since Iran is unlikely to enjoy the ground solidarity of the Sunni world. The Sunni countries are as worried as Israel over Iran’s nuclear aspirations. They will condemn Israeli military strikes, but will not do anything in support of Iran beyond that.
In view of what has been stated above, if Israel succeeds in neutralising Iran’s nuclear facilities and retaliatory capability, Iran may decide that it has no other option but to gulp it and keep sulking-- as Saddam Hussein did post-1981.
If an Israeli military strike is successful, the consequences for the region and the global economy may not be serious. If it is not successful, the consequences could be far-reaching.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies