Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Green Light?

A pair of reports, published this weekend, suggest that Israel has received tacit permission for a raid against Iran's nuclear facilities.

The first account, from the U.K. Telegraph, claims that Saudi Arabia has assured Israel that it will "cast a blind eye" to IAF jets flying over the kingdom, during any potential raid against nuclear targets in Iran.

The head of Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, has assured Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Earlier this year Meir Dagan, Mossad’s director since 2002, held secret talks with Saudi officials to discuss the possibility.

The Israeli press has already carried unconfirmed reports that high-ranking officials, including Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, held meetings with Saudi colleagues. The reports were denied by Saudi officials.

“The Saudis have tacitly agreed to the Israeli air force flying through their airspace on a mission which is supposed to be in the common interests of both Israel and Saudi Arabia,” a diplomatic source said last week.

Use of Saudi airspace would solve enormous logistical, planning and tactical challenges for the IAF. Without a direct route (through Saudi Arabia or Iraq), Israeli pilots would be forced to use corridors through Turkey or around the Arabian Peninsula. As we noted more than three years ago, longer routes put added pressure on Israel's small tanker fleet, which would be used to re-fuel strike aircraft on the Iran mission.

Estimates vary on the exact numbers of tankers in the IAF inventory, but most analysts believe there are only 5-7 KC-707s. These aircraft would be an integral part of any long-range mission to Iran, providing aerial refueling and (possibly) command-and-control functions, such as radio relay. Israeli aircraft use the same "boom" refueling system as the USAF; fighters maneuver behind the tanker as the "boom operator" extends the refueling probe into the refueling receptacle of the receiving aircraft. Once contact is established, the tanker begins pumping fuel to the receiver, at a rate of several hundred pounds per minute.

The number of tankers available, coupled with their potential offload, will limit the size of any Israeli strike package. Again, estimates on the size of the formation vary (depending on the number of targets to be struck, fighter payload, target distance and airspeed), but many analysts believe the Israelis would launch 4-5 tankers, supporting no more than 30 strike aircraft, divided roughly between F-15Is and F-16Is (which would attack the nuclear facilities) and other F-15s and F-16s, flying air defense suppression and air superiority missions. Divide the number of "bombers" (say 15) by the number of nuclear complexes (four), and you'll see that the IAF has virtually no margin for error.

Flying across Saudi airspace would not only decrease in-flight refueling requirements, it could also allow the IAF to add additional strike aircraft to the package, and increase their munitions load, improving prospects for success. Utilizing a corridor through Saudi Arabia would also provide "plausible denial" for two of Israel's most important allies, Turkey (which controls northern approaches to Iran), and the United States, which controls Iraqi airspace.

But if securing the Saudi route is critically important--and it is--why leak the information? A couple of possibilities come to mind. First, there's the chance that someone in Israel or Saudi Arabia decided to leak the information, trying to deter the attack for political reasons.

Secondly, the leak may be designed to send a message to Iranian leaders. Saudi complicity means that Israel has overcome one of the last major obstacles in striking Iran's nuclear facilities. That means an attack would come at any time, giving the mullahs something to contemplate as they set strategy in Ahmadinejad's second presidential term.

The announcement about the Saudi air route came just days after another disclosure from Tel Aviv. Late last week, the Defense Ministry disclosed that an Israeli Dolphin-class recently transited the Suez Canal in June. It was the first IDF warship to use the waterway in years, and signals improving relations between Israel and Egypt. The transit also gives Israeli subs direct access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, putting them closer to possible targets in Iran.

According to various defense and press accounts, Israel's newest subs are capable of launching cruise missiles through their torpedo tubes. Details on the weapons system remain sketchy; some analysts believe the cruise missile is a modified Harpoon or Popeye with limited range. Others suggest a long-range weapon, capable of hitting targets up to 750 miles away. Whatever its capabilities, the cruise missile gives Israel another option for striking Iran.

There are also indications that the U.S. will not stand in the way if Israel attacks Tehran's nuclear facilities. In an interview on ABC's "This Week," Vice President Joe Biden said the Israelis are free to set their own course on Iran. According to the AP, Biden's remarks suggest the administration is adopting a "tougher" stance toward Tehran, although the vice president still holds out hope for talks with the Iranians.

Given Mr. Biden's penchant for verbal slips and gaffes, it's hard to say if his comments actually reflect administration policy, or he was simply free-lancing once again. Assuming his remarks are consistent with White House views, then it looks like the Obama team may be accepting the inevitable.

In other words, Tehran has no plans to give up its nuclear program, and Israel will not allow Iran to get the bomb. That makes an Israeli strike almost inevitable, and there's only so much the U.S. can do to prevent it.

Besides, even the "diplomacy first" crowd that dominates the White House and State Department must recognize the bottom line. If the Israelis go after Iran, they will be doing the world a favor, and (possibly) prevent a regional conflagration. It's the sort of bold action that-- in another time--might be openly endorsed by the U.S. But in today's political environment, tacit approval is about as good as it gets.


jayemarr said...

"It was the first IDF warshit to use the waterway in years"

I am fairly sure you mean "warship", unless the IDF has some new class of weapon with which I am unfamiliar. ;)

Unknown said...

J--You are correct, and the typo has been corrected. It's amazing what a spell checker doesn't catch.


apex said...

With regard to the saudi "agreement", we should keep in mind that saudi arabia is not exactly the best route to take, that one would go over Jordan and Iraq. However, it provides some nice "plausible deniability" for the US and Jordan, and if it keeps the Iranians looking in the wrong direction, that is all very nice. Plus, the diplomatic aspect you mentioned.


lgude said...

Given the recent events in Iran this sudden surge of interest in an Israeli attack from John Bolton to Joe Biden seems more like information war than a harbinger of an imminent attack. And the disclosure of the Saudi position in conjunction with Olmert's name sounds like an opposition leak intended to impede Netanyahu's freedom of action as you suggest. Still these recent events seem to have challenged the notion that either W or O really held an absolute veto. It is becoming clearer - it is down to Tel Aviv at a time and by a route of their choosing.

John Burgess said...

There's no way in hell the Saudis would approve this. They're far to vulnerable to Iranian counterattack even with conventional arms. The major Saudi oil facilities are less than five minutes' flying time from Iranian bases along the Gulf.

This really sound more like an Israeli wet dream or a John Bolton, "If I were Saudi Arabia, I'd..."

Rich said...

Sound, well-balanced analysis. It now appears (1800 EST) that the VP misspoke, or at least should not have spoken at all in stating the obvious. Adm Mullen was probably asked to step in to "clarify" our military position.
Unfortunately we are too far on the sidelines to know absolutely what the set-up strategy may be for direct US engagement with Iran.
For direct contacts to make any sense at all - which is a stretch - the US needs to "remind" the Iranians that if unsuccessful, action by the IDF would be at least with the accommodating military support of the US and tacit approval (i.e. overflights, tactical disinformation) of neighboring states.
That said, the IDF may judge the best and last window to actually be during talks (they correctly perceive the stakes as that high), take Biden's cogent advise to act independently and recommend the strike. If Netanyahu sees our Administration as I do, the most we may actually do is wake the President who will ensure the Saudis of protection while we watch the IDF Patriot system at work.

What is "Occupation" said...

our current president votes "present" that is his plan...

israel will be forced to protect it'sself against iran.....

then obama will lead the charge against israel at the un....

obama is no friend of israel and has no stomach to really stop iran...

so what to do? do nothing...

vote present...

then claim that he was against israel's actions to the world...