In a speech at Johns Hopkins University in November 2003, Efraim Sneh, a former general and now a leader of Israel's Labor Party, declared that because of the development of its nuclear program whose aim, he saw, was the construction of nuclear weapons, Iran had become an "existential threat" to Israel. Sneh's assertion, which has been echoed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other leaders of both the Labor and Likud parties, raises a number of serious questions. First, is there sufficient evidence to conclude that as part of its efforts to develop a "full cycle" nuclear program, which includes the enrichment of uranium, Iran is indeed seeking to produce nuclear weapons?
Second, can the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons program be dealt with by diplomacy, or only by force? Third, if force is to be used, can Israel count on the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations to do the job, or must it only rely on itself? Fourth, if Israel feels it must act alone, how might such an attack transpire? Finally, what would be the likely reaction, both in the Middle East and in the world to an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear installations?
The first question to be considered is whether Iran is indeed developing a nuclear weapons program, or is only building its nuclear program for "peaceful purposes," such as the generation of electricity, a claim made by both reformers in the Iranian leadership such as President Khatami and hardliners such as the Ayatollah Khamenei and former Iranian President Rafsanjani who gravitated to the camp of the hardliners after leaving office in 1997. Given the controversy over the Iraqi WMD program as the primary cause of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, this is a very important question. To answer the question, it is necessary to review briefly the development of Iran's nuclear program. Under the Shah of Iran, who was deposed in 1979, Iran had begun a nuclear program, including the construction of two nuclear reactors at Bushehr by West Germany, but it was temporarily stopped when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. Under the pressure of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran resumed its nuclear program, but the Bushehr reactor complex was damaged during the war, and once the war was over, Germany refused to repair the complex, fearing that Iran was planning to use it to develop nuclear weapons. In 1995, under Rafsanjani, Iran concluded an agreement with Russia to rebuild and complete one of the reactors, much to the unhappiness of the United States and Israel, which asserted that the fuel produced by the reactor could be used in nuclear weapons. Russia, however, went ahead with the contract, claiming that since Iran had signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would supervise the project to ensure that no uranium could be diverted into nuclear weapons.
However, the question then, and now, is whether the IAEA can be trusted to perform the watchdog task claimed by the Russians. As is now well known, the IAEA, whose charter calls for it to give assistance in the development of "peaceful uses" of nuclear energy, while also ensuring that countries under its supervision do not divert equipment or material into the construction of nuclear weapons, has failed spectacularly on three different occasions. First, it failed to discover the nuclear weapons program that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been developing in the period before the 1991 Gulf War. Second, the IAEA failed to uncover Libya's nuclear weapons program (that program came to light when the U.S. Navy intercepted a ship carrying equipment for nuclear facilities to Libya). Finally, it failed to discover that Iran, in addition to the Bushehr reactor program, had been secretly developing a number of other nuclear programs, including a centrifuge plant to enrich uranium near the city of Nantaz, a heavy water plant near the city of Arak that will produce plutonium, and a laser facility for the enrichment of uranium. Iran was shown also to have been mining its own uranium, perhaps fearing that under U.S. pressure, Russia might not supply Iran with uranium.
When confronted by the evidence of its duplicity in early 2003, Iran claimed that, as in the case of the Bushehr reactor, it was developing its nuclear energy programs only to generate electricity, not to develop nuclear weapons. It could not adequately explain, however, why it had not hitherto revealed its extensive nuclear program. Then, when the United States was at the height of its international prestige after quickly ousting the regime of Saddam Hussein, in April 2003, and perhaps fearing that the United States would go after it next, Iran felt compelled to make some concessions. After extensive negotiations with a delegation of European states in October 2003, Iran agreed to accept unannounced inspections by the IAEA, to reveal fully all of its nuclear programs, and also to suspend the enrichment of uranium. However, as the U.S. got increasingly bogged down in Iraq, and also faced mounting difficulties in Afghanistan, the Iranian leadership became emboldened. Not only did it fail to reveal to the IAEA inspectors a secret P-2 centrifuge system, or a program to produce Polonium 210, which, most specialists contend, can only be used as a trigger for nuclear weapons (or for a space program that Iran does not have), it also reneged on its promise to stop enriching uranium and, by August 2004, had once again begun the enrichment process. Iran also repudiated the September 18, 2004 IAEA request that it stop enriching uranium.
Given this record of duplicity and defiance, most observers, particularly in the United States and Israel, believe that there is no question but that Iran had embarked on a program to produce nuclear weapons. This being the case, what can be done about the Iranian nuclear program? There have been two suggested ways to deal with the problem--diplomacy and the use of force, in the form of targeted strikes against Iranian nuclear installations.
The European Union has been the leading advocate of using diplomacy to solve the problem. Initially, assuming that the Iranian moderates led by President Khatami, would win out in the struggle for power with the conservative hardliners led by Ayatollah Khamenei, most Europeans have advocated a policy of "constructive engagement" with Iran. Thus, as noted above, a three-nation European delegation (Germany, France, and England) signed the agreement with Iran in October 2003 that they thought would bring the Iranian program under strict international control. However, when the hard-line conservatives manipulated the Iranian parliamentary elections in 2004 to ensure the defeat of the moderates, and then when Iran reneged on its promise to stop nuclear enrichment, France, Germany, and England began to take a harder line and circulated a draft resolution for the September 13, 2004 IAEA meeting far more supportive of the tough position advocated by the United States than ever before. Thus, mention is made in the resolution of possible "further steps" the IAEA could take if Iran did not stop its nuclear enrichment program, and these words appeared in the final resolution on September 18th. This means referring the issue to the U.N. Security Council, where, at least in theory, multilateral sanctions could be imposed on Iran. While this is the course of action favored by the United States, merely referring the issue to the U.N. Security Council is no guarantee of success.
The first problem is that Russia, which seeks to sell additional reactors to Iran, will veto the resolution. Second, even the tough position of the European States may erode if Iran threatens to walk out of the IAEA and/or threatens to curtail trade (Iran is a major market for France and Germany). Third, the Bush Administration appears divided on what to do about Ivan, with Under Secretary for Arms Control John Bolton advocating severe sanctions, while former Secretary of State Colin Powell favored a policy of engagement with Iran--the very policy that was tried by the Europeans and appears to have failed. Even if the hardliners in the Bush Administration win out, it is a very open question whether the U.S. would be willing to do anything more than support intensified economic sanctions against Iran, something unlikely to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This is the case, despite the fact that Iran poses a far greater danger to the United States and its Middle Eastern allies than Saddam Hussein's Iraq did when the Bush Administration chose to invade that country in 2003. Bogged down badly by the insurgency in Iraq, and faced by the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and perhaps fearing that Iran could make the situation worse for the U.S. in both countries (both Iraq and Afghanistan have long borders with Iran), the U.S. may not have the will to undertake military action against Iran and may be satisfied with a diplomatic victory at the U.N., if it can achieve one. While the debates at the IAEA go on, Iran will continue to develop its nuclear weapons program. In looking at this situation, the words Efraim Sneh uttered in November of 2003 take on an almost prophetic quality. In answering a question as to whether Israel could depend on the United States or Europe to take military action against Iran, Sneh asserted, "Those who did not bomb Auschwitz won't bomb Bushehr."
This being the case, it appears that Israel, most likely by itself, will have to destroy Iran's nuclear programs, much as it destroyed the French-built Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osiraq in 1981. There is already deep enmity between Iran and Israel. Iran refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and last summer an Iranian Judo athlete refused to compete against his Israeli counterpart at the Olympics. Iran is also allied to Syria, a country that continues to be in a military confrontation with Israel, and the Iranian regime also aids Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia organization that occasionally shells Northern Israel, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which carry out terrorist attacks against Israel. These organizations, like Iran, are pledged to the destruction of Israel. When one combines a government controlled by hardliners committed to the destruction of Israel with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them (the Shihab III rocket), the threat to Israel indeed becomes an existential one. More than three years ago, in December 2001, former President of Iran Hashemi Rafsanjani stated publicly that Israel would not survive a nuclear exchange, while the Muslim world would only be damaged. Then, in August 2004, perhaps seeking to deter an Israeli attack while Iran was forging ahead with its nuclear weapons program, Iranian General Yahya Safani, commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards--one of the most hard-line organizations in Iran--stated, "If Israel should dare to attack our nuclear installations, we will come down on its head like a heavy hammer crushing its skull." In addition, perhaps in an effort to dissuade Israel from even preparing to launch a strike against Iran, Iranian Defense Minister Admiral Ali Shakhmani warned that Iran might resort to preemptive strikes to prevent an attack on its nuclear installations. Not only would such strikes be launched against Israel, the admiral stated, but also against U.S. forces in the Middle East, because Israel would not be able to launch an attack without an American "green light." While Iran later backed off from Shakhmani's threat, claiming that his words had been taken out of context, the meaning of his words was clear, especially when another Revolutionary Guards commander, General Baqer Zalqadr, warned that if Israel hit Iran's nuclear reactor at Bushehr, Iran would destroy Israel's nuclear reactor at Dimona. Tension grew further, on September 21, 2004, when Shihab III missiles, exhibited in a military parade in Tehran, were draped with banners that read "Wipe Israel Off The Map."
As this war of words escalates, it is necessary to ask if Israel has the capability of hitting the Iranian nuclear sites, assuming it knows where they are. There are two possible methods of carrying out such a pin-point attack. The first is an Osiraq-like attack by the Israeli air force utilizing American-supplied F-15 aircraft. Unlike Osiraq, however, this would be a far more difficult undertaking, given the distance between Iran and Israel. Ideally, Israel would like to use bases in southeast Turkey, near the Iranian border. Israel signed a defense agreement with Turkey in 1996, and Turkey utilized the treaty to its advantage when it forced Syria in 1998 to expel the Kurdish terrorist leader Abdullah Ocalan. However, in 2002, the Islamist AK regime took power in Turkey and almost immediately began to distance itself from Israel, while drawing closer to its one-time enemy, Iran. Under these circumstances, Israel is unlikely to obtain Turkish acquiescence for the use of Turkish bases to attack Iran. The second route for an Israeli attack would be across Jordan and Iraq (presumably with the OK from the U.S., which controls Iraqi airspace). This would require a major refueling effort but is still within the realm of possibility. Finally, and most difficult of all because of the distance and the refueling effort involved, would be for Israeli aircraft to fly in international waters down the Red Sea and around the Arabian Peninsula, to attack Iranian nuclear sites from the south.
Another way for Israel to attack Iran's nuclear installations would be for it to use the submarines it received from Germany following the 1991 Gulf War as a reward for not retaliating against the Iraqi missiles that hit Israel during the war. The Israeli subs could move close to Iran's shores before firing their missiles, thus, hopefully, ensuring the accuracy of their strikes. The question remains, however, whether the conventional weapons Israel would use in either the aircraft or submarine attacks would have sufficient explosive power to destroy completely the hardened Iranian installations. Nonetheless, the recent decision by the U.S. to sell Israel so-called bunker-busting bombs, may give Israel that capability.
Assuming the Israeli attacks are successful, what are the likely repercussions? As noted above, Iran has threatened to retaliate against an Israeli strike, but for the time being at least, it will only be able to do so with conventional weapons, because it has not yet--given current intelligence--been able to place a nuclear warhead atop a Shihab III missile. Iran could, of course, fire some of its Shihab III missiles with conventional explosive warheads against Israel, but the missiles are reportedly not accurate enough to hit the Dimona reactor, although they could probably hit Israeli cities that are large targets. This, however, would lead Israel to fire its own missiles against Iranian cities. The last time Iran engaged in a missile war of the cities was in the Iran-Iraq war when it had to sue for peace because the missile strikes were causing it serious damage. This being the case, Iran might favor the option of asking its proxy, Hezbollah, to fire its weapons into Israel from southern Lebanon. Such a request, however, would have to be approved by Syria, which currently controls Lebanon. Given the weakness of the Bashar Assad regime, and its still uncertain hold on power in Syria, it is an open question whether Syria would give its OK for a major Hezbollah attack, since Israel might retaliate directly against Syria (as well as possibly reoccupying southern Lebanon). The Bashar Assad regime might not survive such an assault. Under these circumstances, Hezbollah may only get to fire a few rockets, more as a symbolic action than anything else, and Iran may have to content itself with getting a U.N. denunciation of Israel, much as Iraq did after the Osiraq attack in 1981.
As far as the Arab world is concerned, while there may be strong denunciations of the Israeli action, there may also be quiet satisfaction, at least among the leaders of the Arab states that continue to fear an Iranian threat to their countries and their regimes. From Russia, which has invested heavily in the Bushehr reactor (which would be Israel's primary target), one can expect a severe denunciation of the Israeli action, especially if Russian technicians are killed in the attack. Russian Israel relations, which have cooled since their period of great warmth following the collapse of the Soviet Union, may be expected to chill further. One can also expect a strong denunciation from the European Union, which is likely to admonish Israel for not utilizing diplomacy to deal with the Iranian problem.
None of this criticism will matter very much to Israel, which is concerned about the opinion of only one other country--the United States. Despite the divisions in the Bush Administration, Israel can expect its tacit support, even if Iran steps up its efforts to destabilize the pro-American governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Congress, which enacted the Iran/Libya sanctions act, may be far more supportive, as Iran has remained unpopular in the U.S. Congress since the 1979 hostage seizure. Meanwhile, if Israel is successful in destroying the Iranian nuclear program, so that it would take a long time to rebuild it, there is also the hope that the hardline Iranian regime of the Ayatollahs, which is increasingly unpopular, will fall before Iran is able to rebuild its nuclear facilities, and will be replaced by a more moderate regime willing to coexist with Israel. Under these circumstances, another Israeli strike would not be necessary.
All in all, the world as a whole may one day thank Israel if it destroys the Iranian nuclear program, much as the U.S. belatedly did in 1991 when, thanks to Israel's destruction of the Osiraq reactor in 1981, the U.S. Army did not have to face a Saddam Hussein equipped with nuclear weapons. Thus, in looking at the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear installations, the question no longer is if an attack will take place, but only when.
ROBERT O. FREEDMAN is the Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science at Baltimore Hebrew University and is a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is The Middle East Enters The 21st Century.…