Friday, December 16, 2005

Is There a Military Option?

Ze'ev Schiff, Ha'aretz:
During the war games at the Pentagon a few months ago, one scenario that came up was of Israel using force to halt Iran's nuclear development program, as it did in Iraq in 1981.

The question asked was whether Israel had the military means to do so. The popular thinking was that such an operation was beyond Israel's capability, despite its impressive military might. It was believed that a small country like Israel, located so far away from Iran, whose planes would have to fly over other countries to reach the target and stay long enough to get the job done, would not be able to knock Iran's nuclear infrastructure out of commission.

What Israel could do was impose harsh sanctions and penalties on Iran that could cause the project to be held up, or spark a regional conflagration, which would probably not do Israel much good, let alone eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. Israel could also pressure the United States into acting prematurely and dictate moves that might be against American interests.

Not everyone in Israel would agree with this, but the matter is rarely broached. About a year ago, two retired generals - Eitan Ben-Eliahu, former commander of the Israeli air force, and Yitzhak Ben-Israel, former head of military research and development - took part in a symposium at Netanya College that touched on this matter. Both were cautious in presenting their views, but one could infer from what they said that Israel had the military capability. READ MORE

Ben-Eliahu focused more on problems related to planning such an operation - what kind of weapons and ammunition to use, choosing a flight path, refueling plans, landing options if something went wrong, and so on.

Ben-Israel spoke about state-of-the-art technologies and the possible goals of such an operation. Neither of them talked about the political implications, or whether such a large-scale operation made sense. They did not talk about how Iran might respond.

The United States may be a superpower with tremendous military capability, and yet it continues to debate the question of whether it has the military might to eliminate Iran's nuclear program entirely. First, there is the matter of intelligence. U.S. intelligence may not have all the data critical for such an operation. The skeptics say: "We don't know what we don't know." They say there are dozens of targets involved. Others - military professionals - believe the military option exists, and it is sufficient to zero in on a few strategic targets, where the most important work is being done, to create a setback of many years. Some say that an operation of this scale can be wrapped up in three weeks.

Although President Bush says that military action against Iran has not been dropped from the agenda, it is clear that Washington is not pursuing this track at the moment. Despite the sense of frustration and failure among those negotiating with Iran, the feeling in Washington and major European capitals is that the political process and peaceful attempts to reach a solution have yet to be exhausted. Even the UN Security Council has not been approached.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was right in acknowledging that the military option against Iran exists. In his answer, he never said anything about Israel. He was speaking about military intervention in general.

In sum, the international community - as opposed to any individual country - could exercise the military option if a decision is made that Shi'ite Iran's status as a nuclear power poses an international danger or threatens the stability of the world, and not just the Middle East. What remains uncertain is whether such a decision will ever be reached.