how Israel would destroy Iran's nuclear program
By Reuven Pedatzur
Israeli government ministers and Knesset members who will help make the
decision about whether to attack Iran's nuclear facilities do not have to wait
any longer for a preparatory briefing by the Israel Air Force.
They can read about all the possible scenarios for a strike on Iran, and about the potential risks and chances
of success, in a study by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman of the Center
for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Never before has such an open, detailed and thorough study of Israel's
offensive options been published. The authors of the 114-page study
meticulously gathered all available data on Israel's
military capabilities and its nuclear program, and on Iran's nuclear
developments and aerial defenses, as well as both countries' missile inventory.
After analyzing all the possibilities for an attack on Iran, Toukan and Cordesman conclude: "A
military strike by Israel
against Iranian nuclear facilities is possible ... [but] would be complex and
high-risk and would lack any assurances that the overall mission will have a
high success rate."
The first problem the authors point to is intelligence, or more precisely, the
lack of it. "It is not known whether Iran has some secret facilities
where it is conducting uranium enrichment," they write. If facilities
unknown to Western intelligence agencies do exist, Iran's
uranium-enrichment program could continue to develop in secret there, while Israel attacks
the known sites - and the strike's gains would thus be lost. In general, the
authors state, attacking Iran
is justified only if it will put an end to Iran's nuclear program or halt it
for several years. That objective is very difficult to attain.
Intelligence agencies are also divided on the critical question of when Iran will
deliver a nuclear weapon. Whereas Israeli intelligence maintains it will have
the bomb between 2009 and 2012, the U.S. intelligence community
estimates it will not happen before 2013. If the Israeli intelligence
assessment is accurate, the window for a military strike is rapidly closing. It
is clear to everyone that no one will dare attack Iran once it possesses nuclear
Since Iran has dozens of
nuclear facilities dispersed throughout its large territory, and since it is
impossible to attack all of them, Toukan and Cordesman investigated the option
of hitting only three, which "constitute the core of the nuclear fuel
cycle that Iran
needs to produce nuclear weapons grade fissile material."
Destroying these three sites ought to stall the Iranian nuclear program for
several years. The three are: the nuclear research center in Isfahan,
the uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz, and the heavy water plant, intended
for future plutonium production, in Arak.
It is doubtful whether Israel
would embark on an offensive with such major ramifications just to strike a
small number of facilities, when it is not at all clear that this will stop Iran's
nuclearization for a significant length of time.
The study analyzes three possible flight routes and concludes that the optimal
and most likely one is the northern one that passes along the Syria-Turkey
border, cuts across the northeastern edge of Iraq
and leads into Iran.
The central route passes over Jordan
and is shorter, but would not be chosen for fear of political trouble with the
Jordanians. Using the southern route, which passes over Jordan, Saudi
Arabia and Iraq, might likewise lead to
To prevent the aircraft being detected en route to Iran, the IAF would use advanced
technology to invade and scramble communication networks and radar devices in
the countries over which the F-15s and F-16s fly, so even though dozens of
planes would pass through the countries' airspace, they will not be detected.
According to the authors, the IAF used this technology in the raid on the
Syrian nuclear reactor in Dayr az-Zawr, in September 2007. A hacker system was
installed on two Gulfstream G550 aircraft that the IAF bought in recent years.
A strike mission on the three nuclear facilities would require no fewer than 90
combat aircraft, including all 25 F-15Es in the IAF inventory and another 65
F-16I/Cs. On top of that, all the IAF's refueling planes will have to be
airborne: 5 KC-130Hs and 4 B-707s. The combat aircraft will have to be refueled
both en route to and on the way back from Iran. The IAF will have a hard time
locating an area above which the tankers can cruise without being detected by
the Syrians or the Turks.
One of the toughest operational problems to resolve is the fact that the
facility at Natanz is buried deep underground. Part of it, the fuel-enrichment
plant, reaches a depth of 8 meters, and is protected by a 2.5-meter-thick
concrete wall, which is in turn protected by another concrete wall. By mid-2004
the Iranians had fortified their defense of the other part of the facility,
where the centrifuges are housed. They buried it 25 meters underground and
built a roof over it made of reinforced concrete several meters thick.
The Iranians use the centrifuges to enrich uranium, which is required in order
to produce a nuclear bomb. There are already 6,000 centrifuges at the Natanz
facility; the Iranians plan to install a total of 50,000, which could be used
to produce 500 kilos of weapons-grade uranium annually. Building a nuclear bomb
takes 15-20 kilograms of enriched uranium. That means that the Natanz facility
will be able to supply enough fissile material for 25-30 nuclear weapons per
Because the Natanz facility is so important, the Iranians have gone to great
lengths to protect it. To contend with the serious defensive measures they have
taken, the IAF will use two types of U.S.-made smart bombs. According to
reports in the foreign media, 600 of these bombs - nicknamed "bunker
busters" - have been sold to Israel. One is called GBU-27, it
weighs about 900 kilos and it can penetrate a 2.4-meter layer of concrete. The
other is called GBU-28 and weighs 2,268 kilos; this monster can penetrate 6
meters of concrete and another layer of earth 30 meters deep. But for these
bombs to penetrate ultra-protected Iranian facilities, IAF pilots will have to
strike the targets with absolute accuracy and at an optimal angle.
But the challenges facing the IAF do not end there. Iran has built a dense
aerial-defense system that will make it hard for Israeli planes to reach their
targets unscathed. Among other things, the Iranians have deployed batteries of
Hawk, SA-5 and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, plus they have SA-7, SA-15,
Rapier, Crotale and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Furthermore, 1,700
anti-aircraft guns protect the nuclear facilities - not to mention the 158
combat aircraft that might take part in defending Iran's skies. Most of those planes
are outdated, but they may be scrambled to intercept the IAF, which will thus
have to use part of its strike force to deal with the situation.
However, all these obstacles are nothing compared to the S-300V (SA-12 Giant)
anti-aircraft defense system, which various reports say Russia may have secretly supplied to Iran recently.
If the Iranians indeed have this defense system, all of the IAF's calculations,
and all of the considerations for and against a strike, will have to be
overhauled. The Russian system is so sophisticated and tamper-proof that the
aircraft attrition rates could reach 20-30 percent: In other words, out of a
strike force of 90 aircraft, 20 to 25 would be downed. This, the authors say,
is "a loss Israel
would hardly accept in paying."
also decides to attack the famous reactor in Bushehr, an ecological disaster
and mass deaths will result. The contamination released into the air in the
form of radionuclides would spread over a large area, and thousands of Iranians
who live nearby would be killed immediately; in addition, possibly hundreds of
thousands would subsequently die of cancer. Because northerly winds blow in the
area throughout most of the year, the authors conclude that, "most
definitely Bahrain, Qatar and the
UAE will be heavily affected by the radionuclides."
The difficulty involved in an IAF strike would become a moot point if ballistic
missiles wind up being used instead of combat aircraft. The Iranians cannot
defend against ballistic missiles. The study lays bare Israel's missile program and points to three
missile versions it has developed: Jericho
I, II and III. The Jericho
I has a 500-kilometer range, a 450-kilogram warhead, and can carry a 20-kiloton
nuclear weapon. Jericho II has a 1,500-kilometer range, and entered service in
1990. It can carry a 1-megaton nuclear warhead. Jericho III is an
intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 4,800-6,500 kilometers, and
can carry a multi-megaton nuclear warhead. The study says the latter was
expected to enter service in 2008.
The authors apparently do not insinuate that Israel will launch missiles
carrying nuclear warheads, but rather conventional warheads. By their
calculation it will take 42 Jericho III missiles to destroy the three Iranian
facilities, assuming that they all hit their marks, which is extremely
difficult. It is not enough to hit the target area: To destroy the facilities
it is necessary to hit certain points of only a few meters in size. It is
doubtful the Jerichos' accuracy can be relied on, and that all of them will hit
those critical spots with precision.
The study also analyzes the possible Iranian response to an Israeli strike. In
all likelihood the result would be to spur Iranians to continue and even
accelerate their nuclear program, to create reliable deterrence in the face of
an aggressive Israel.
would also withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which until now
has enabled its nuclear program to be monitored, to a certain degree, through
inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. An Israeli strike would
immediately put a stop to the international community's attempts to pressure Iran into
suspending development of nuclear weapons.
No Syrian response
Iran would also, almost
certainly, retaliate against Israel
directly. It might attack targets here with Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, whose
range covers all of Israel.
A few might even be equipped with chemical warheads. In addition, the Iranians
would use Hezbollah and Hamas to dispatch waves of suicide bombers into Israel. The
Second Lebanon War showed us Hezbollah's rocket capability, and the experience
of the past eight years has been instructive regarding Hamas' ability to fire
Qassams from the Gaza Strip.
Hezbollah launched 4,000 rockets from South Lebanon during the Second Lebanon
War, and their effect on northern Israel has not been forgotten: Life
was nearly paralyzed for a whole month. Since then the Lebanese organization's
stockpile was replenished and enhanced, and it now has some 40,000 rockets. Israel does not
have a response to those rockets. The rocket defense systems now being
developed (Iron Dome and Magic Wand) are still far from completion, and even
after they become operational, it is doubtful they will prove effective against
thousands of rockets launched at Israel.
An Israeli strike on Iran
would also sow instability in the Middle East.
The Iranians would make use of the Shi'ites in Iraq,
support Taliban fighters and improve their combat capabilities in Afghanistan.
They also might attack American interests in the region, especially in
countries that host U.S.
military forces, such as Qatar
The Iranians would probably also attempt to disrupt the flow of oil to the West
from the Persian Gulf region. Since the United States would be perceived as having given
Israel a green light to
American relations with allies in the Arab world could suffer greatly. Toukan
and Cordesman believe, however, that Iran's
ally Syria would refrain
from intervening if Israel
Regarding a possible time frame for an Israeli strike, the authors cited
factors that could speed up the decision in this matter. By 2010 Iran could pose a serious threat to its
neighbors and Israel,
because it would have enough nuclear weapons to deter the latter and the United States
from attacking it. Iran's
inventory of effective ballistic missiles capable of carrying nonconventional
warheads could also be an incentive. The fear that the country will procure the
Russian S-300V aerial-defense system (if it has not done so already) might also
serve as an incentive for a preemptive strike.
So what should Israeli policy makers conclude from this American study? That an
IAF strike on Iran
would be complicated and problematic, and that the chance of it succeeding is
not great. That they must weigh all of the far-reaching ramifications that an
Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would have, and that they must not
be fooled by promises, should any be made, by Israel Defense Forces officers
who present the attack plan as having good odds for success.
One of the conclusions from Toukan and Cordesman's study is that it is
questionable whether Israel
has the military capability to destroy Iran's nuclear program, or even to
delay it for several years. Therefore, if the diplomatic contacts the Obama
administration is initiating with Iran prove useless, and if in the wake of
their expected failure the American president does not decide to attack Iran,
it is likely that Iran will possess nuclear weapons in a relatively short time.
It seems, therefore, that policy makers in Jerusalem
should begin preparing, mentally and operationally, for a situation in which Iran is a nuclear power with a strike capability
This is the place to emphasize Israel's
mistake in hyping the Iranian threat. The regime in Tehran
is certainly a bitter and inflexible rival, but from there it's a long way to
presenting it as a truly existential threat to Israel. Iran's
involvement in terror in our region is troubling, but a distinction must be
made between a willingness to bankroll terrorists, and an intention to launch
nuclear missiles against Israel.
Even if Iran gets nuclear
power of deterrence will suffice to dissuade any Iranian ruler from even
contemplating launching nuclear weapons against it.
It is time to stop waving around the scarecrow of an existential threat and
refrain from making belligerent statements, which sometimes create a dangerous
dynamic of escalation. And if the statements are superfluous and harmful - then
this is doubly true for a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Of course, none of this contradicts the possibility of taking covert action to
hamper the Iranians' program and supply routes. When the IAF destroyed the
Osirak reactor in Baghdad in 1981, the
"Begin doctrine" came into being, which holds that Israel will not
let any hostile country in the region acquire nuclear weapons. The problem is
that what could be accomplished in Iraq
more than two decades ago is no longer possible today under the present
circumstances in Iran.
The continual harping on the Iranian threat stems from domestic Israeli
politics and a desire to increase investment in the security realm, but the
ramifications of this are dangerous when you analyze expected developments in Iran's ballistics: It is impossible for Israel to ignore Iran's
capacity to hit it, and Jerusalem
must shape a policy that will neutralize that threat.
In another year, or three years from now, when the Iranians possess nuclear
weapons, the rules of the strategic game in the region will be completely
must reach that moment with a fully formulated and clear policy in hand,
enabling it to successfully confront a potential nuclear threat, even when it
is likely that the other side has no intention of carrying it out. The key, of
course, is deterrence. Only a clear and credible signal to the Iranians,
indicating the terrible price they will pay for attempting a nuclear strike
will prevent them from using their missiles. The Iranians have no logical
reason to bring about the total destruction of their big cities, as could
happen if Israel
uses the means of deterrence at its disposal. Neither the satisfaction of
killing Zionist infidels, nor, certainly, the promotion of Palestinian
interests would justify that price. Israeli deterrence in the face of an
Iranian nuclear threat has a good chance of succeeding precisely because the
Iranians have no incentive to deal a mortal blow to Israel.
Therefore, all the declarations about developing the operational capability of
IAF aircraft so they can attack the nuclear facilities in Iran, and the empty
promises about the ability of the Arrow missile defense system to contend
effectively with the Shahab-3, not only do not help bolster Israel's power of
deterrence, but actually undermine the process of building it and making it
credible in Iranian eyes.
The time has come to adopt new ways of thinking. No more fiery declarations and
empty threats, but rather a carefully weighed policy grounded in sound
strategy. Ultimately, in an era of a multi-nuclear Middle
East, all sides will have a clear interest to lower tension and
not to increase it.