// You are reading...

International Politics

Outside the Box: How Likely Is An Israeli Attack On Iran?


Executive Summary:

A conjunction of events opens a window of opportunity for Israel to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The framework agreement reached in Switzerland between the 5+1 nations and Iran is vehemently opposed by the Israeli government, which wants what it considers a more permanent solution to the problem. Republican legislators in the US also seek to discredit the Obama Administration’s signature foreign policy initiative as well as divide the US Jewish vote from the Democrats in the 2016 general election. Saudi Arabia also wants a “permanent” solution to the Iranian-Shia challenge, which they feel encircles and destabilizes them with their influence in Iraq, Bahrain and now Yemen. Together they have an interest in sabotaging the negotiations before the June deadline or shortly thereafter.

Outside of the Box: How Likely Is An Israeli Attack on Iran?

“If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”
–  Moshe Dayan

Last Friday in Switzerland, a group of negotiators representing the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, agreed to a framework for inspection, control and limitation of Iran’s nuclear research program in return for an end to economic and political sanctions. I have already covered the details of that program here; but it is worth repeating that this new agreement remains only a framework and many details remain to be worked out over the next two months. The agreement can be judged as “good” in the sense that no one got what they wanted: the West failed to get Iran to renounce all nuclear research, Iran failed to get more immediate relief to sanctions, and the Russians failed to keep the other parties at loggerheads while they sort out the mess on their own border with Ukraine.

The deal is also a good one in the sense that, if properly implemented with full cooperation from Iran, then the military potential of their research is dealt a crippling blow: Iran is giving up almost the entirety of its stock of highly refined uranium as well as most of the centrifuges needed to rapidly refine new quantities, especially their most advanced ones. The uranium will be gone out of the country, to Russia most probably, while the centrifuges will be kept in storage, inventoried and subject to count and inspection by the IAEA. Iran will be left without the means to test a bomb, much less miniaturize a deliverable warhead and test it as well. However, the operative particle is “if”: and there is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.

The agreement has its opponents, most vocally the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. There was never any chance of his support for any negotiation with Iran. There are other enemies as well, some of them very important:

  • The Revolutionary Guard and ultra-conservatives in Iran provide President Rouhani with a powerful domestic opposition which may be able to scuttle the deal if sanctions relief is slow and the Persian people turn against the government. Rouhani was elected in part because he promised quick results in the nuclear negotiations and the lifting of the sanctions;
  • Most Republicans in the US Congress oppose the agreement: some from a visceral rejection of all things Obama; some for a knee-jerk support of all things Netanyahu, especially in the run up to a general election; some from a long-standing hatred of Iran since the Revolution; and some from all three. Congress would have the power to vote on the termination or continuation of sanctions, while the Senate would vote on any formal treaty that might be signed (there won’t be one);
  • There are also some Democratic legislators that might face enormous, possibly decisive, pressure by their pro-Israel constituents and donors to oppose any deal;
  • The Saudis are also none too happy with the framework. They have publicly voiced cautious support for the Lausanne outcome, but there is little doubt that they privately wish the US and Israel would obliterate Iranian power and the challenge it poses Saudi Arabia. For the Saudis have taken up the banner of Sunni Islam and are locked in a deadly and increasingly violent dispute with Iran for primacy over the large region between the Mediterranean and the Zagros Mountains. Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are most directly in play; but the Arabian Peninsula has substantial Shia minorities in Bahrain and Yemen, both of which are suffering from political instability and Saudi military interventions. Iran was not overtly involved in either country – Yemen especially is a special case with troubles dating back to long before the reunification of the country – but the simple fact that Iran seeks to speak for all the Shia, and that it is Shia, is sufficient to set them on a collision course with the House of Saud.

At this time, the risks of unilateral action on the part of the Israelis seems extremely remote: not even Netanyahu wants to risk the potential international backlash from an attack that scuttles the multiparty framework agreement before it has even had a chance to fail on its own. At best, the Europeans would recognize a Palestinian state and lift or allow to expire the current sanctions on Iran. At worst, the US might do the same. Yet the Israelis have not survived as a nation by sitting still and letting events develop around them; the last time they did that was in the run up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a war they nearly lost. And as we all know, the Israelis must win every war, the Arabs need win only once.

There is another problem. The nuclear facilities Israel must hit are widely dispersed and Iran is a big country. It is also much further away than Osirak and Deir ez-Zur, two sites famously destroyed in previous raids. The strike force would have to overfly either Syria or Jordan and then all of Iraq just to reach Iran, making the risk of detection very high: and the Israelis would want to keep this operation secret from the Iranians, their Iraqi proxies and the United States as well. The great distance also obliges them to either refuel or carry very light ordinance in order to reach their targets. Inflight refueling over Iraq would  bevery difficult to coordinate and also keep secret; while going light on ordinance risks a failure to destroy the targets once the jets arrive. These operational difficulties are undoubtedly formidable and one of the principle reasons the Israelis haven’t already taken matters into their own hands. But formidable should not be confused with insurmountable.


Key Assumptions:

I assume that Iran does not yet have enough nuclear material to build a weapon; nor is it close enough to truly present an existential threat to Israel. Were that not the case, I assume that Israel would launch a pre-emptive strike irrespective of the wishes of the United States.

The Long Arm of Menachem Begin

“Israel is still the only country in the world against which there is a written document to the effect that it must disappear.”
– Menachem Begin

For Mr. Netanyahu to apply the Begin Doctrine[1] he continuously advocates, he would need to: 1. lay the political groundwork that would mitigate international reaction against Israel in the wake of an attack; and 2. find a way to overcome the operational difficulties of reaching Iran secretly and with sufficient ordinance to do the job. These conditions can be met with “a little help from his friends” and some geopolitical imagination. Israel has proven to be nothing if not imaginative in its short history as a modern state.

The key would be the forging of a rogue’s alliance of mutual interest between the Israelis, the GOP and the Saudis. These three have each proven to be ruthless in the pursuit of their interests and pragmatic when it comes to their bedfellows in such enterprises. It would be for the Republicans in Congress to act first: their job would be to sabotage the negotiation or implementation of a final deal between the US and Iran by any and all means necessary. They have already stated publicly that they intend to do just that: the letter by the 47 Senators was purely amateur hour and for domestic consumption, but there will be more and more strident efforts as the weeks drag on.


It is imperative for Mr. Netanyahu that the hand that destroys the framework is an American hand. Only thus will he be protected from the ire of Europe and the US President by diverting everyone’s frustration and anger on to the Republicans, who have amply demonstrated just what they think of world opinion. Not only would this shield Israel’s actions, it would prove a spur to the Iranians to get on with nuclear activities. A discredited Rouhani might fall, replaced by a military hardliner or more probably a reactionary cleric; and the Iranians would decide that their only alternative to achieve safety for their regime is to risk a sprint to the bomb. Even if the last part is not true – the Iranians may yet face significant hurdles to building a fission bomb – the intelligence will be made to say that it is in order to spook the other guest to the party, the Saudis.

Saudi cooperation is critical and could be forthcoming. If negotiations collapse and the Americans are proven to be too divided, too incompetent to secure their own interests, the Saudis will be confirmed in their belief that the US is an unreliable patron. The Saudis have cooperated with the Israelis in the past and there is a tacit modus vivendi between Tel Aviv and Riyadh that transcends the more obvious causes of friction. Under the circumstances painted above, Saudi Arabia could be open to an Israeli suggestion for a pre-emptive strike.

Saudi Arabia is the ideal Israeli partner for a number of reasons:

1. They are already upset with the US and willing to act in their own interests without American support or approval;

2. There is the aforementioned commonality of interests and history of covert cooperation;

3. Their proximity to Iran means that the Israeli strike force could take off with maximum weight, fly over international waters at low altitude to avoid detection and directly penetrate Iranian airspace without violating anyone else’s;

4. The fact that Saudi Arabia and Israel both operate US-made aircraft which both fire the same US-made ordinance, means that arming those aircraft could take place in Saudi Arabia rather than in Israel, again reducing the risk of early detection of intentions;

5. The Saudi-led air campaign against Yemen currently provides ideal cover for the movement of Israeli jets into Saudi Arabia. Who would notice a few more F-15s with all the military traffic currently transiting Southern and Central Arabia? Israeli jets could arrive over the course of a few days to avoid suspicion and remain in dispersed sites out of sight until such time as the strike were ready to be launched.



“The Egyptians could run to Egypt, the Syrians into Syria. The only place we could run was into the sea, and before we did that we might as well fight.”

– Golda Meir

Once the political groundwork had been laid (i.e. agreement with GOP, Riyadh) Israel would begin preparations to gain strategic and tactical surprise over Iran. Although the Iranians are fully aware of the possibility of an Israeli attack, it is impossible to maintain a permanent state of heightened vigilance. Thus Iranian defense forces, like those of every nation, would rely on the interception and correct interpretation of advance signals that would warn them of the decision for an attack and to the greatest extent possible, the timing and direction of it. Iran has important and proven human intelligence assets in Syria and Lebanon – perhaps in Israel and Riyadh as well. Iran also cooperates with the Syrian military in the operation of their radar and signals intelligence assets. All of these might provide advanced warning, but they might also be used against the Iranians to send false intelligence and create false impressions. That would be the Israeli goal.

Israel would need to keep a number of factors secret:

  1. The meeting of the Israel Cabinet to vote for the strike. Any unusual agenda items or unscheduled meetings could be a red flag. The Israelis could either: pre-authorize a mission during a regular Cabinet meeting and leave the actual GO/NO GO decision to a smaller body that would not be observed (e.g. Operation Opera 1981); or they could schedule an emergency meeting and use a plausible justification, such as an escalation in Palestinian terrorism or the Syrian conflict (e.g. Operation Orchard 2007);
  2. The heightened preparations of air- and ground crews of the IDF, the heightened state of readiness of Israeli forces in the Golan (next to Hezbollah controlled territories) and the possible deployment of additional Iron Dome batteries in anticipation of an Iranian counterstrike via ballistic missiles. The latter activities might be delayed until the last minute by accepting the additional risk of unpreparedness and disorganization. The former activity cannot be delayed, but could be covered by coinciding its timing with a peak in the normal training cycle;
  3. Intelligence gathering on the Iranian targets. To be truly successful, the Israelis will not want to rely on satellite imagery alone; they would prefer to have eyes on the ground to notice any last minute changes to installation defenses and security patterns. If available, they would prefer to have operatives able to “light” the targets with lasers for improved accuracy of the precision guided bombs. There might be other covert operations that the Israelis would wish to undertake during this phase to undermine Iranian security and their response capability to the raid.Israel does have human assets inside Iran. Over the years, five prominent Iranian nuclear physicists and engineers tied to the nuclear program have been assassinated. Though the Israelis disclaim responsibility, it is classic Mossad wet-work (there is no Mossad). Nonetheless, getting assets into position and perhaps inserting new assets, takes time and could be detected by the highly competent Iranian counterintelligence service. This is undoubtedly the riskiest aspect of the whole operation and the one most likely to tip off the Iranians as to the imminence of an attack;
  4. The transfer of aircraft to Saudi bases. It will be impossible for Israel to hide the fact that it is flying aircraft down the Red Sea from Egyptian and Jordanian radar, but that does not mean that this would necessarily be deemed unusual, especially if the aircraft are seen to fly back to Israel. This could be achieved by having the Saudis fly some of their F-15s on the return route; it would not even have to be the same number, as the Israelis could “mask” the number of their jets from radar by flying them in tight formations. Once into Saudi airspace, the problem disappears.Even this might be an over complication: there is no reason to believe that the Egyptian or Jordanian leadership, neither of which love the Ayatollahs, would volunteer this information to their Iranian counterparts. If the Israeli jets disappear into Saudi airspace, the implication that the Saudis want them there are obvious and both Cairo and Amman are likely to take their cues from Riyadh. A wink is as good as a nod, in this case. But if the Israelis wanted to really minimize the risk to operational security, they might try a tactic like the one I suggest above.

Saudi Arabia would also have to prepare itself and care for its operational security. The Kingdom has good capabilities, but far less experience than the Israelis: their role would be minimized as much as possible to prevent errors and possible exposure. One activity that would be crucial would be for the Saudis to begin a pattern of flights by F-15s towards Iran over the Persian Gulf at different altitudes. The ostensible reason would be the heightened tensions between the two states arising from the Saudi intervention in Yemen against the Zaidi Shiite Houthi. The real reason would be to dull Iranian alertness and create an expectation around these flights through repetition over a number of weeks.

The Raid

“The state of Israel must, from time to time, prove clearly that it is strong, and able and willing to use force, in a devastating and highly effective way. If it does not prove this, it will be swallowed up, and perhaps wiped off the face of the earth.”
– Moshe Sharett

What are the minimum targets that Israel would need to destroy to cripple the Iranian nuclear program? The most vulnerable point of the chain is the fuel enrichment stage: without highly enriched uranium[2] or plutonium, nothing will go “boom”. These include the fuel enrichment facilities at Fordow and Natanz and the heavy-water reactor at Arak. Israel would also want to destroy the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, which converts the milled uranium yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride that then goes to the enrichment facilities. A truly ambitious strike might attempt to target Lavizan-3, which is suspected to be another, covert, enrichment facility. This would be very difficult though as the facility is located in a residential suburb of Tehran: Israel is likely to focus only on the targets in Central Iran.


Judging from previous operations, the Israelis would use a small number of aircraft, perhaps 8 per target[3]. They would be a mixed group: probably 4 aircraft configured with a strike package, 2 in an air superiority role and 2 in an air defense suppression role. The intention would be to use ordinance only on the target and to clear an exit: the flights would not be able to blast a way into Iran if detected too early. The heavy water reactor at Arak is the most vulnerable and could conceivably be targeted by Popeye cruise missiles launched from one of Israel’s Dolphin-class diesel submarines[4]. Therefore, Israel would need 3 or 4 flights to accomplish the mission, depending on the availability of the SLCM option.


Because of the greater complexity of an operation against Iran, involving multiple critical targets, compared to previous strikes against single sites in Iraq and Syria, the tolerance for aircraft aborts is lower; no team could lose more than one or two aircraft without jeopardizing the effectiveness of the entire operation. If the flight bombing Fordow is forced to abort, the success of the Natanz flight becomes moot. Therefore, the Israelis may wish to “go heavy” and send additional aircraft to ensure the necessary redundancy to deal with unforeseen emergencies, like early aborts. The trade-off is that each additional aircraft increases the likelihood of detection by Iranian air defenses.

The aircraft would be preceded by a series of cyber-attacks. Exactly what shape these would take depends on Israeli capabilities and Iranian defenses. Israeli capabilities are high: in the case of the attack on Syrian nuclear site, the Israelis were reportedly able to disable the Syrian air defense radars, not through jamming – which itself would have given away the attack – but by projecting an image of normalcy even as the Israeli jets penetrated Syrian airspace. I would expect cyber-attacks on the Iranian air defense network, on telecommunications, potentially targeted attacks on power supplies as well, such as around Isfahan. The idea would be to prevent detection, delay countermeasures and sow maximum confusion among the Iranians as the strike flights near their targets.


Israel might also use decoys, feints to place the Iranians on the horns of a dilemma. These could take the form of actual aircraft or UAV´s mimicking the flight profile of the strike flights, but on different routes. For example, Israel might wish to take advantage of the close relationship between Iran and Syria to launch flights out of northern Israel with tanker support that would be meant to be detected by the Syrians, who would then pass on the information to the Iranians, who would then expect the attack to come from a different direction. The tanker flight could even be authentic: the strike aircraft would need to refuel in order to return home and Northern Syria is as good a place as any.

On the morning of the raid, probably as the Israeli aircraft are about to penetrate Iranian airspace, Prime Minister Netanyahu would call President Obama and inform him of Israel’s actions.  Whatever the relationship between the two men, this is a necessary and critical action: the American Commander-in-Chief must know what is happening so that he may order US forces and installations to assume their highest alert status in the event of Iranian reprisals. This is assuming that the President has not already been informed by US intelligence services of the Israeli activities. Faced with the obvious collaboration of Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s two closest allies in the region, there is nothing President Obama could do beyond preparing to manage the consequences.

Finally, the aircraft would exit Iran on a different route than the one they entered on. Given the chaos in Iraq and Syria, it seems likely that the Israelis would choose to send their jets directly home, possibly flying over “Kurdistan” which could be expected to be friendlier than other parts of these countries. If tanker support is available for inflight refueling, the Israeli jets could exit Iranian airspace at high speed, but that would use up their fuel reserves. I expect the Israelis would be able to provide an escort and refueling as they’ve done in the past. Furthermore, there are few other alternatives: it is doubtful that Saudi Arabia would allow them back into the country after the attack had taken place.

The Aftermath

Israel would only stage the attack on Iran if it had high confidence in being able to do enough damage to seriously cripple their nuclear program. Assuming that the raid was successful, there is no reason to believe that Iran would quickly recover their previous capability. Neither Iraq nor Syria were able to do so after their facilities were bombed. The damaged and destroyed facilities and equipment represent an enormous, multi-decade investment by the Islamic Republic, which they are unlikely to be able to repeat quickly with sanctions still in place. Besides the equipment, many highly trained personnel may be killed in the attack and this human expertise will also be difficult to replace in the short-term. Thus, there is no reason to believe that a successful attack will “achieve nothing”: in conjunction with a continuation of sanctions, it might very well cripple Iran’s capabilities to continue their research for a decade to come.

There is a counter argument that the Israeli actions against Iraq were not decisive. Iraq was too distracted by the conflict with Iran until 1988 to every rebuild its nuclear program; and then the destruction wrought by the 1990-1991 First Gulf War and the resulting sanctions were what truly crippled Saddam Hussein’s ambitions. But even if this argument is correct, it may be part of Mr. Netanyahu’s calculations: he may be counting on the Americans to finish what he started – willingly or unwillingly[5].


Prime Minister Netanyahu might also hope that the Israeli attack would seriously split the American people and prove to be a boon for Republican candidates in the 2016 election. Although there is no reason to suspect that Mr. Netanyahu wouldn’t get along famously with Mrs. Rodham-Clinton[6], but after eight years with a Democratic White House, it is not improbable that the Israeli PM would prefer a Republican Administration. It is likely that a successful strike would help vindicate the Prime Minister’s and GOP positions, and any Republican candidate would use this as a bludgeon against any Democratic candidate, who might be torn between support for President Obama’s “failed policy” and denouncing it, even though it might anger the Democratic base (without convincing any conservative or many independent voters). In fact, this action could be an election-turner.

There remain significant operational risks, however. The greatest of these is that the attack should fail or deal insufficient damage. Fordow especially is a hardened facility with portions underground: there is no guarantee that Israelis munitions will penetrate deeply enough to cause irreparable damage to the installation. Should that be the case, the Iranians will maintain enough of an enrichment capability to continue their development, though at a lower level than previously. There is also the risk that Iran has greater than estimated spares, such as centrifuges stored in separate locations, that would allow them to quickly return to pre-attack levels of enrichment. There is a risk that Iran has additional hidden facilities, like the aforementioned Lavizan-3 site which is suspected to be a uranium enrichment facility. The Iranians might well have invested in such redundancy precisely to mitigate the damage resulting from a successful attack.

To my mind, the greatest risk remains strategic: even with the political cover afforded by the GOP sabotage of negotiations, there is some degree of probability that the European Union’s frustration with Israel might bubble over. This would bring with it a political cost: formal recognition of the Palestinian Authority, possible sanctions against Israel related to military sales and equipment. Worse from the Israeli point of view, it might cause the Europeans to lift the sanctions on Iran, undermining the whole purpose of the pre-emptive strike in the first place. Certainly, the Russians and the Chinese would try to take advantage of the situation for economic and political advantage vís-a-vís the Americans and Israelis.

It is my belief that the best chance for truly ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions is through negotiation and a normalization of relations between the Islamic Republic and the United States. That obviously doesn’t mean that we will become best buddies: but it does mean that the Bush Administration goal of regime change in Tehran is disavowed. After all, that was the primary reason for the massive investment in nuclear research made by the Iranians after 2003. Thus, negotiation is also the best guarantee of Israel’s security, in my opinion. But that is not Prime Minister Netanyahu’s belief and the Israeli public has just renewed his electoral mandate. The confluence of interests and the timing of events create a danger zone that extends from now until the US elections next year during which time there is a much heightened risk of an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran.

Sources and Notes

[1] Named after Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who ordered the Osirak strike in 1981, and who said “let this be a precedent for all future Israeli Prime Ministers.”

[2] 80% is the practical minimum amount of U235 required for a usefully deliverable bomb; this is the level of the first US atomic weapons dropped on Japan. The higher the refinement percentage, the lower the amount of fissile material required to reach critical mass. Therefore, most modern weapons use above 90% refined U235 in order to keep the weight of the warhead down as well as to improve the efficiency of the device. Theoretically however, even uranium with a lower than 80% percentage of U235 could be made into a fission bomb, if sufficient mass were brought together.

[3] These numbers are consistent with both previous nuclear strike operations against Iraq and Syria.

[4] These are heavily modified export versions of the Type 209 (Dolphin I) and Type 212 class (Dolphin II) diesel-electric submarines manufactured by Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG in Germany. Israel has an unconfirmed SLCM capability which was reportedly used to destroy targets in Syria during the civil war.

[5] A Republican victory in 2016 might very well lead to a new “regime change” policy and war with Iran. Even a Democratic victory doesn’t guarantee peace as the new President might feel the need to respond militarily should Iranian reprisals in the wake of the Israeli airstrike damage US interests sufficiently.

[6] Mr. Netanyahu’s first time as Prime Minister was during the Clinton Presidency (1996 to 1999) during which time he enjoyed good relations with the Administration

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.“

John Adams


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 792 other subscribers