Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Iran's Preemptive Option?

Senior Iranian officials are reportedly pressing for a preemptive strike against Israel, to prevent an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Haaretz reports that the "preemptive option" was mentioned two weeks ago by Dr. Seyed G. Safavi, the Director of Iran's Research Institute of Strategic Studies. Safavi made the remarks during a meeting with foreign diplomats in London. He said that recent threats by Israeli officials had "strengthened" the position, but a preemptive attack had not been integrated into Iranian policy.

As Haaretz writer Barak Ravid observes, Dr. Safavi is no interloper when it comes to Iranian security affairs:

Safavi is head of the Research Institute of Strategic Studies in Tehran, and an adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The institute is directly affiliated with Khamenei's office and with the Revolutionary Guards, and advises both on foreign policy issues. Safavi is also the brother of Yahya Rahim Safavi, who was the head of the Revolutionary Guards until a year ago and now is an adviser to Khamenei, and holds significant influence on security matters in the Iranian government.

An Israeli political official said senior Jerusalem officials were shown Safavi's remarks, which are considered highly sensitive. The source said the briefing in London dealt with a number of issues, primarily a potential Israeli attack on an Iranian reactor.

Safavi said a small, experienced group of officials is lobbying for a preemptive strike against Israel. "The recent Israeli declarations and harsh rhetoric on a strike against Iran put ammunition in these individuals' hands," he said.

Despite his credentials, Safavi's comments are little more than bluster at this point. As we've observed in previous posts, threatening and conducting preemptive strikes are totally different matters. At this juncture, Iran's options for such an attack are severely limited. Without nuclear weapons, Tehran could must limited missile strikes against Israel, using conventional, chemical and biological weapons.

In response, Iran could expect an overwhelming nuclear attack, delivered by Israeli Air Force fighters and ballistic missiles. Iranian leaders are anything but rational, but that sort of one-sided exchange would (presumably) give them pause.

As for a possible Iranian air strike, don't hold your breath. As we detailed last week, Tehran's claims about training for a long-range air attack on Israel are laughable, at best. By most estimates, the Iranian Air Force has just one air tanker to support such a mission, and only a handful of F-4 crews have been trained for long-distance strikes.

With nuclear weapons, the equation changes slightly, but Israel still has a vast advantage. And that's a big reason that Safavi's favored, "preemptive strike" has not been "integrated" into Iranian planning. Still, it's scary enough to think that Tehran would contemplate such a move--and that the idea is gaining support in ruling circles.

1 comment:

Andrew Zalotocky said...

Another possibility is that the Iranians might try to pre-empt an Israeli strike by getting Hezbollah and Hamas to mount a full-scale attack on Israel. If they fought to the bitter end they could keep the IDF fully occupied for months, thus buying the Iranians time to complete and demonstrate a nuclear weapon. This plan would be most likely to succeed if Hezbollah were supplied with a large stockpile of long-range rockets and missiles beforehand. These could be fired from deep within Lebanon, forcing the IDF to commit its aerial refuelling aircraft to supporting long-range patrols searching for the launch sites.