Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Reading the Tea Leaves

There's been a great deal of speculation in recent months about whether Israeli will launch a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. The prevailing wisdom, from those "supposedly in the know" goes something like this: Iran's nuclear program, circa 2005, presents a vastly different challenge than Saddam's bomb-making efforts in 1981, when Israeli Air Force F-16s destroyed the Osirak reactor near Baghdad. Iran's nuclear effort is probably de-centralized; a sudden strike against a single target (or a small set of targets) wouldn't have the same effect as the 1981 raid. Additionally, Israel may be willing to give European diplomatic efforts a chance to resolve the crisis, or (alternatively) the Sharon government believes the U.S. take action to keep Tehran from getting the bomb.

All these explanations have at least a kernel of truth, and may ultimately prove accurate. But don't discount the possibilty of Israeli military action. Today's Israel's foreign minister speculated that Iran may have the knowledge required to produce nuclear weapons in as little as six months. It should be noted that "knowledge" doesn't equal a working nuclear device. But the foreign minister's comments suggests that Tel Aviv is viewing the Iranian nuclear program with increasing concern. And, lest we forget, Israel has stated unequivocally that it will never tolerate a nuclear-capable Iran. Today's remarks reflect a widening debate within Israel over the potential Iranian threat, and potential Israeli courses of action. The Begin government took similar steps in 1981, before launching their strike against Saddam's nuclear program.

The Israelis have also noted that there are certain nuclear "red lines" that Tehran will not be allowed to cross. So far, Israeli officials haven't defined those red lines, reflecting debate within the Israeli government, and Tel Aviv's desire to keep the Iranians guessing.

Will the Israelis strike again? I can't answer that question. But it is worth remembering that Israeli is one of the foremost practitioners of military denial and deception (D&D) in the world. The Israeli Air Force--without peer in the Middle East--has incorporated D&D measures in virtually every operation. They are extremely adept at concealing operational planning and preparations from everyone, including the U.S. If Israel decides to target Iran, our first indication will likely come when the bombs start falling on an Iranian nuclear facility.

Meanwhile, the Iranians are supposedly preparing their air defenses for a potential Israeli strike. But, as this report demonstrates, Tehran's air defense system often operates in a state of confusion, the military equivalent of a Chinese fire drill (with apologies to Chinese participating in fire drills). Unfortunately, Iran's incompetence in these matters also raises the possibility of over-reaction of miscalculation. In this environment, there's a real possibility that Iran could shootdown a non-hostile aircraft (such as a civilian airliner), or lashing out at U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf region. Tehran believes the U.S. would be complicit in any Israeli strike, and besides, it's a shorter flight to our bases in the Gulf than Israel.

No comments: