Friday, January 06, 2006

Timmerman Gets it (Mostly) Wrong

I have great respect for Kenneth Timmerman. He's a veteran reporter, with years of experience covering the Middle East and national security issues. In 1983, he was the first western reporter on the scene in Beirut, after terrorists blew up the U.S. Embassy. He's also done yeoman's work in tracking the rise of Islamofacism, and its growing threat to the west.

But even the pros get it wrong now and then. Case in point? Mr. Timmerman's latest article in FrontPage Magazine, predicting that the demise of Ariel Sharon, coupled with Iran's nuclear posturing, makes a preemptive Israeli strike more likely.

To make his case, Timmerman takes note of recent events in both Iran and Israel. On the Israeli side, he quotes the IDF Chief of Staff (Lt Gen Dan Halutz) as saying diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue had appeared to "reach a dead end." Halutz made the comments in a press interview in early December, 2005.

But Halutz sounded a different message a few weeks later, telling other journalists that Iran was "years away" from developing nuclear weapons, and expressing continued support for the diplomatic process. He did, however, indicate that the window for diplomacy might close in a few months.

Timmerman also cites recent NBC (nuclear, chemical and biological) exercises by elements of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, near a ballistic missile test site. Like most militaries, Iran conducts this type of training on a recurring basis, and the proximity to the missile test site is actually irrelevant. While Iran is certainly expanding its ballistic missile and long-range rocket forces--and improving its chemical and biological arsenals--there does not appear to be any relationship between the events referenced by Timmerman.

He also cites Iran's recent "shopping spree" to acquire advanced weaponry from the Russians. The reported "purchase" of S-300 missiles has been making the rounds for years, but we've never seen any evidence that the deal has been concluded. One reason? The S-300 comes with a staggering pricetag--between $300-$400 million per battalion. So far, Iran has not been willing to meet Russia's asking price for the S-300. The system would be useful to Tehran in defending against Israeli air and missile strikes, but there is no proof that such a purchase is in the works.

Mr. Timmerman also notes that Iran is trying to upgrade its MiG-29 fighters, ostensibly to fend off an Israeli (or U.S.) attack. Despite these efforts, the aircraft has (so far) been something of a disappointment for the Iranian Air Force; Iranian pilots have never exploited its full tactical capabilities, and there have been significant maintenance problems as well. As a result, aging, U.S.-built F-4 Phantoms and F-14 Tomcats still form the backbone of the Iranian fighter force, and pose the most credible threat to any aircraft attacking Tehran. And obviously, Israeli F-15s and F-16s are more than a match for the Iranian Air Force, and Tehran's ground-based air defenses. If Iran were really serious about gearing up for an Israeli strike, they would probably take other measures to improve their air force, such as the acquisition of SU-27/30 FLANKERs from the Russians. Advanced FLANKER models are more of a match for western aircraft than the MiG-29.

Timmerman is right about one thing: with the expected passing of Sharon, Iran will make the most of the opportunity, and press ahead with its nuclear program. But the events he cits does not make an Israeli strike more likely. Just the opposite--with the government in transition in the coming months, Israel is less likely to strike Iran's nuclear sites. As we have pointed out before, there is legitimate debate within Israel over the status of the Iranian program and the threat it actually poses. The answer to those questions will be formulated by a new government. Absent clear, unambiguous evidence that Iran has--or is about to acquire nuclear weapons--is it very unlikely that a "caretaker" government would order a strike before the elections.

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