Friday, February 03, 2006

Israel Nears End of Diplomacy on Iran

Peter Goodspeed, National Post:
For months speculation has mounted about U.S. and Israeli preparations to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Yesterday, as the International Atomic Energy Agency met in Vienna to debate reporting Iran to the UN Security Council for breaching its nuclear non-proliferation agreements, that speculation entered the realm of distinct possibility.

There is now an intensified spirit of confrontation in the dispute that harkens back to the unblinking animosity of the Cold War. U.S. President George W. Bush, whose administration has already been seared by the heat of war, may soon come to regard the current impasse with Iran as his very own Cuban Missile Crisis.

Amidst the increasing threats and counter-threats, quiet diplomacy appears to be coming to an end.

Just two weeks ago, Israel's Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz publicly declared that Israel "will not accept Iran's nuclear armament" and hinted Israel's armed forces are already planning to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities.

The statement came as a rash of European newspaper reports quote unnamed Israeli military and intelligence officials saying they are updating plans for pre-emptive strikes on Iran.

Any Israeli raid will be carried out using long-range F-15E bombers and cruise missiles against a dozen key Iranian sites, the reports said.

Pilots in the Israeli Air Force's elite 69 Squadron have been briefed on the plan and have conducted rehearsals in the Negev desert against a scale model of Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor on the Persian Gulf coast.

In the meantime, Israeli newspapers are holding heated discussions on what could be involved in a military strike.

Unlike Israel's successful air raid against Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, a pre-emptive strike against Iran would be a highly complex operation.

Iran learned its lesson from Iraq's experience and over the last two decades has dispersed its own nuclear production facilities all over the country.

A list of potential Iranian targets includes the nuclear reactor complex at Bushehr, nuclear enrichment and conversion plants at Natanz and Isfahan, a heavy water plant at Arak and uranium mines at Saghand.

There are also a host of secondary targets, including missile-assembly plants, air and naval bases, power plants, arms factories and military headquarters.

Some of those sites are buried deep beneath the ground, while others are ringed with missile batteries and radar-controlled anti-aircraft batteries.

In September, 2004, Israel bought 500 BLU-109 bunker busting bombs from the United States, just in case they ever had to attack Iran. The bombs can penetrate more than two metres of reinforced concrete.

A recently released U.S. War College report, "Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran," doubts an Israeli raid could destroy all of Iran's nuclear facilities.

Still, Israeli experts believe they can buy themselves time by seriously degrading Iran's nuclear potential and postponing the day Tehran gets nuclear weapons.

Before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a coma last month, there were rumours he had secretly set a March deadline for the Israeli military to be prepared to act against Iran.

At the time, Mr. Sharon's chief spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, dismissed the rumours, saying: "Israel has no intention of launching an attack against Iran, definitely not before all diplomatic options have been exhausted."

A March target date for an attack, however, would coincide with Israeli elections slated for March 28 and matches up with what many believe may be the final meeting of the IAEA before it refers Iran to the UN Security Council -- a move Iran says will mean the end of diplomacy.

The reported deadline may also be driven by practical military considerations.

Iran has just signed a defence contract with Russia to take delivery of US$1-billion worth of sophisticated Tor-M1 surface-to-air missiles. The missiles appear to be intended to guard Iran's nuclear complex at Bushehr.

There is also a growing fear Iran may have improved its own intelligence-gathering capabilities and could rob Israel of the element of surprise through the launch last October of its first satellite, Sinah-1, aboard a Russian rocket.

In the meantime, Iran's leaders continue to threaten Israel, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issuing genocidal threats to "wipe Israel off the map" and declaring the Holocaust was a myth.

As a result, most Israelis see the confrontation with Iran as an existential threat -- something they have not had to face since the dark days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

There is a general belief the United States is reluctant to act first against Iran. Its commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq could preclude an attack on Iran, except in the direst of circumstances.

Nevertheless, U.S. experts say Washington already has war plans in place.

"Since at least the middle of 2004, U.S. long-range bombers and submarines have been on alert to carry out an attack on weapons of mass destruction targets that could potentially threaten the United States," says William Arkin, a military analyst and author of the book Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs, and Operations in the 9/11 World.

"At Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in Omaha, the global strike plan has been written and refined," Mr. Arkin says. "The choreography for bomber and cruise missile attacks has been arranged. Actual targets have been selected, and WMD activity is monitored, resulting in constant revisions of the choreography." READ MORE

At the very least, Washington will be a passive participant in any Israeli attack, having to sign off on Israel's plans, if only to defend its troops in Iraq from possible Iranian retaliation.

If attacked, Iran can be expected to lash out at U.S. troops in Iraq. It could launch ballistic missile attacks against Israel's own nuclear reactor sites in the Negev desert and it may move to shut down oil exports from the Persian Gulf.

It could also step up support for terrorism against Israel and the United States.