Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"We are Ready to Deal With Iran"

Those are the words of Israel's Air Force commander, regarding a possible air strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities.

Major General Ido Nehushtan made the comments in a conversation with the German paper Der Spiegel, which was published on Tuesday. During the interview, Geneal Nehushtan said a potential strike is a political decision, and not a question of Israel's military capabilities:

A strike against Iran's nuclear facilities "is a political decision," the IAF commander said, "but if I understand it correctly, all options are on the table… The Air Force is a very robust and flexible force. We are ready to do whatever is demanded of us."

When asked by the paper whether the Israeli military was able to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, which are spread around the country and partly located underground, Nehushtan said, "Please understand that I do not want to get into details. I can only say this: It is not a technical or logistical question."

Nehushtan said the cutting edge capabilities of the IDF in the region were not only a derivative of the advanced technologies it uses.

"Modern technology is one thing, but the biggest advantage we have is our soldiers and officers. Israel is a small country. We neither have a big population nor natural resources. Our biggest asset is our human resources. And it is the Air Force that makes best use of it," he said.

While Nehushtan's comments were clearly calibrated for Iranian consumption, there was little bluster in his remarks. The Israeli Air Force has been preparing for a potential strike against Iran for years, with periodic updates. Two years ago, a group of IAF officers told their USAF counterparts that plans for an attack were complete, and they (reportedly) include forward operating bases for commando teams that would support the mission.

The real question, of course, is whether Israel would actually order the strike. With the nation preparing for elections in February, the consensus has been that any decision will wait until the next prime minister takes office.

But events could force a shorter timeline. Iran is continuing its pursuit of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. By one estimate, Tehran could obtain its first nuclear device in as little as two years; that means that a raid aimed at derailing the Iranian program would be mounted sooner, rather than later. However, most intelligence agencies believe that Tehran won't obtain the bomb until after 2010, suggesting that Israel has a slightly wider window for military action.

However, U.S. politics will also play a role in Tel Aviv's eventual decision. Israeli officials view the incoming Obama Administration as being even less supportive of an attack against Iran than the current Bush White House. Based on that consideration, Israel could launch a strike under its current, caretaker government, before Obama takes office in January.

At this point, it's difficult to say how close Israel might be to a military attack against Iran. The IDF won't tip its hand, beyond vague statements like the one issued by Major General Nehushtan. In fact, given Israel's expertise in military deception, it's quite likely that any strike would be successfully concealed until the moment of execution.

Clearly, the Israelis don't want to tip their hand, but at some point, events in Iran (and elsewhere) may force a final decision. The next few months in the Middle East promise to be consequential, at the very least.


General Nehushtan's comments came as the IAEA announced that Tehran is rapdily increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium, which could be rendered into a nuclear device. According to experts interviewed by the Financial Times, Iran could reach "breakout" status by early next year, leaving it just one step away from producing enough fissile material for a nuclear device.

Just one more factor for the geopolitical calculus in Washington--and Tel Aviv. Mr. Obama, that first 3 a.m. phone call is closer than you think.

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