In an op-ed for today's New York Daily News, former CIA officer Robert Baer predicts this year's "October surprise" will be an attack on Iran, either by the United States or Israel.
It's a scenario that we've explored in previous posts, our most recent just two weeks ago. At the time, we postulated that Tehran's anticipated acquisition of the S-300 air defense system had, effectively, started the countdown toward an Israeli strike. The S-300 would provide a quantum leap in Iranian air defense capabilities, making an Israeli air attack much more problematic. If the IAF is ordered to strike Iran's nuclear facilities, they want to go before the S-300 arrives, not after.
With capabilities easily equal to the U.S. Patriot, the S-300 can engage a variety of aircraft, cruise missiles, and even precision weapons, at distances greater than 150 km. That presents a significant threat to a relatively limited Israeli strike package. As we outlined more than a year ago, the IAF would likely send no more than 30 fighters (F-16s and F-15Is) on the Iranian mission, because of the distance involved and the limited off-load capability of Israel's small aerial tanker fleet.
Tehran's purchase of the S-300 would not be a show-stopper, but it would force the IAF to devote more aircraft (and other assets) to the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD). That means fewer bombs for the nuclear facilities, decreased prospects for success, and a greater risk of aircraft and pilot losses.
As for the American option, Mr. Baer agrees with our analysis: in the waning days of the Bush Administration, with the U.S. still committed to the "diplomatic track"--and a deepening economic crisis--there is no support in Washington for bombing Iran. Barring some sort of cataclysmic event, the Bush team seems content to kick the can down the road, meaning the next president will have to deal decisively with Iran, most likely during his first year in office.
On the other hand, the former CIA agent believes that Israel is moving closer to an attack, almost by the day. As he observes, Tel Aviv now faces the menace of Hizballah and Hamas on its doorstep, and an Iranian regime that will soon be able to hit Israel with a nuclear weapon, delivered by its growing arsenal of medium-range missiles. Against that backdrop, the Israelis (seemingly) have no other choice.
But Baer's assessment ignores an important fact, at least in terms of an October surprise. Israel is in the midst of a political transition. Newly-elected Kadima leader (and foreign minister) Tzipi Livni told party officials to begin preparations for an election, which would follow if she is unable to form a new coalition government.
Ms. Livni's instructions are a de facto admission that she won't be able to cobble together another coalition. That means a campaign, elections and talks to form another government, probably under the leadership of Likud. Given the timeline for those events, the next Israeli Prime Minister won't take office until late this year or early 2009; it's likely that any decision on striking Iran will be made by the new leader, not the current, caretaker government.
Still, it would be a mistake to completely rule out a short-term Israeli strike. The Iranian nuclear program is a threat to Israel's very survival and the ultimate go/no-go decision will be determined by Tehran's progress toward a bomb, not domestic politics. But, if Iran is still a year--or more--away from having a nuclear weapon (as Israeli intelligence officials recently testified), then attack orders will be deferred.
At this point, prospects for an October surprise, courtesy of Israel, seem rather low. But that possibility cannot be totally discounted. As we've observed in the past, the Israelis are masters of military deception, and plans for an Iran mission were completed long ago.
And, contrary to a recent report in the U.K. Guardian, U.S. rejection of Israel's request for an air corridor through Iraq does not nix strike plans, either. Many American analysts have long assumed that the IAF would use air corridors through Turkey (with the attack package masquerading as commercial traffic).
There has also been talk about Israeli "forward basing," for the attack, using airfields closer to targets in Iran. Israeli officers made that claim more than two years ago, during an exercise with their U.S. counterparts. Does the statement have any basis in fact? We will probably find out in the coming months.