An Israeli Air Force F-16 (IDF photo via the Jerusalem Post)
Today’s Jerusalem Post reports that Israeli warplanes have been practicing in Iraqi airspace and landing at U.S. bases in that country, preparing for a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The Post account is based on shaky sources: "former" Iraqi military officers in Anbar Province, who spoke with a local news network. Media outlets in Iran have also picked up the claim. The JP says it cannot confirm the veracity of the report, but that didn’t keep them from running the story. So much for journalistic discretion.
According to Iraqi sources, "massive" nocturnal activity by Israeli jets has been noted at several "American-held bases," including "measures by the U.S. Army to increase security around the bases."
The former Iraqi officers report that IAF jets arrive during the night from Jordanian airspace, enter Iraqi territory, and land on a runway near the city of Haditha. The sources estimate that IAF pilots are rehearsing for a potential raid against Iranian nuclear sites.
By any reasonable standard, the credibility of this report is decidedly low. Given their status as former officers, it’s likely that the Iraqis are out of the loop, and may have an axe to grind with the U.S. military and their own nation’s security services. Gossip about Israeli jets in Iraq will cause problems up and down the chain-of-command, so it’s a convenient way of exacting revenge against U.S. and Iraqi authorities—the same folks who ended the officers’ military careers.
Beyond that, it’s extremely unlikely that the U.S. would allow Israeli jets to enter Iraqi airspace, or land at one of our bases. The geopolitical consequences are simply too great. Having worked for years to liberate and bring stability to Iraq—while maintaining critical alliances with the other Gulf States—the United States cannot afford to risk it all by allowing the Israeli Air Force to operate from our bases in the region.
Besides, it would be virtually impossible to conceal IAF night ops at Al Asad or any other American airbase in Iraq. Those installations, like their counterparts in the United States, operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Hundreds of airmen are awake and on duty in the middle of the night. Some of them would witness the arrival and departure of Israeli F-15s, F-16s and other aircraft.
In fact, a number of Americans, ranging from air traffic control specialists to maintenance personnel, would likely come in contact with the Israelis at our bases in Iraq. And despite the secrecy that would accompany IAF operations, word of that activity would eventually leak out, through U.S., rather than Iraqi channels. So far, we haven’t found a single American account that verifies the JP report. If the Israelis are operating in Iraq, they aren’t utilizing U.S. airfields.
Ordinarily, those facts would be enough to completely discredit this account. But like all good rumors, this one is vaguely plausible, if you consider a slightly different scenario. First, not all airfields in Iraq are under U.S. control. There are Saddam-era bases that remain unoccupied, or they’re under the control of other elements within Iraq.
Flying through Jordan (one of the most likely transit corridors for any IAF strike against Iran), advance elements could deploy to an empty airfield in western Iraq, or one in the Kurdish region, further north. The Iraqi installation—outside U.S. control—would serve as a forward operating base (FOB) for the attack on Iran.
Interestingly enough, that subject came up in an exchange between Israeli and U.S. military officers more than two years ago. During a general discussion of the Iranian threat—and Tel Aviv’s potential plans for countering it—an Israeli officer volunteered that the "problem" of forward basing for an Iran strike had already been solved.
His comment stunned the Americans, who were not aware of any U.S. plans to allow IAF access to our bases. Further comments from the Israelis made it clear that the planned FOB would not be a U.S. installation, and that the airfield would be used for commando and search-and-rescue forces, deployed in support of an Iranian mission.
But that raises the question of how the Israelis would sneak helicopters, transport aircraft and even jet fighters into Iraq—without our knowledge. While it is true that U.S. AWACS aircraft left Iraq several years ago, we have an extensive network of ground-based surveillance and air traffic control radars that monitor the nation’s airspace. To get around that obstacle, the Israelis would probably fly, at low altitude, from bases in southern Turkey (where they routinely deploy), to airfields in the Kurdish region.
Readers will note that none of those possibilities are mentioned in the JP article, or the Iraqi media accounts. They depict the United States. as a willing participant in an Israeli for a strike against Iran, providing basing support for IAF jets at some of our key installations in Iraq.
But that type of assistance simply isn’t in the cards—and the Israelis understand that. While the U.S. will be viewed as complicit in any Israeli strike against Iran, evidence of direct support would only make matters worse. That’s one reason that Israel has pursued other basing options for an Iran mission, understanding that it would be impossible for Washington to say "yes," and fearing that word of any agreement would be leaked to the press.
In fact, the real issue for the United States isn’t basing for Israeli jets bound for Iran. It’s what we do when those ground-based radars detect an Israeli tanker and fighter formation, heading east across Iraq. Flying through Jordanian and Iraqi airspace offers the most direct route to Iran, reducing flying time and fuel requirements. Will we scramble fighters from Balad when those blips appear on the radar scope? Or will the Israeli jets simply "squawk" the right IFF codes, and proceed with their mission?
That’s the type of assistance that the U.S. might be willing to provide for an raid on Iran. But the notion of more direct support—including base access in Iraq—is simply ludicrous.
ADDENDUM: For what it's worth, both the Pentagon and the Iraqi Defense Ministry have denied the report.