An Israeli attack on Iran: True threat or hollow rhetoric?
In the past few months, Israeli officials have conspicuously ratcheted up their threats to attack Iran’s nuclear energy sites, and have even launched provocative Israeli air force training exercises intended to simulate strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In response to Israel’s escalatory language and behavior, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in late December, held its annual military drills dubbed ‘Great Prophet 17.’
Major General Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the IRGC, said the military exercises intended to send a “very clear message” and a “serious, real warning” to Tel Aviv.
“We will cut off their hands if they make a wrong move,” he said, in a strongly-worded warning. “The difference between actual operations and military exercises is just a change in the angles of launching missiles.”
IRGC warnings aside, there are plenty of reasons to suggest that Israel’s threats are little more than empty rhetoric for foreign and domestic consumption. In short, Tel Aviv may not in fact have either the resources to attack Iran or the capacity to absorb Tehran’s guaranteed retaliatory measures.
The many constraints on Israel
Israel’s primary constraint in launching these attacks is due to the multiplicity and dispersion of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Unlike the Israeli air force’s operational destruction of Iraq’s nuclear sites in 1981 (Operation Opera) and its 2007 strike on an alleged nuclear facility in Syria (Operation Outside the Box), where it was only tasked with striking a single point – Baghdad and Deir Ezzor, respectively – it will face a vastly different landscape in Iran.
Iran has four types of nuclear facilities, including research reactors, uranium mines, military, and nuclear sites. In total, there are more than 10 known nuclear facilities that are scattered from north to south of the country.
For example, there is a ground distance of about 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) from the Gachin uranium mine in the city of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran to the Bonab research reactor in the country’s northwest. Attacking such a large number of nuclear facilities from a great distance would require extreme coordination and sophisticated operations to ensure that all facilities are hit at the same time.
In addition, Iran has invested heavily in developing its counter-air defense in recent decades, which currently covers more than 3,600 points and is able to localize its surface-to-air missiles.
The noteworthy point here is that Iran claims self-sufficiency in the construction of its missiles, whereby it can produce and proliferate its missiles without interruption, despite international sanctions. The Bavar-373 missile – a homegrown version of Russia’s S-300 system – is one of these.
Reportedly, the Bavar-373 can simultaneously engage up to six targets with twelve missiles at a distance of up to 155 miles (250 kms). Multiple missiles are likely to be fired at an individual target to increase the probability of a kill.
With this powerful and unified defense arsenal, the possibility of Iran hunting down and destroying Israeli warplanes is high.
A further constraint for Israel is that some of Iran’s nuclear facilities are underground. Nuclear sites, such as the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, where uranium is enriched to above 20 percent, are built at a depth of 80 meters (260 feet) inside a mountain. Israel does not have the special bombers that can destroy facilities deep underground.
While the US does possess the massive bunker-busting ordnances needed to strike such facilities – the 13,600-kilogram (30,000-pound) GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) – Washington has so far refused to provide them to Tel Aviv.
Selling the incredibly heavy MOPs to Israel would be pointless, at any rate, as the Israeli Air Force has neither the aircraft capable of delivering them nor the airfield infrastructure needed to support those planes.
Furthermore, the sale of some types of MOPs has been banned under the New START treaty, also known as the ‘Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms,’ between the US and Russia.
Confronting Iran and its allies
Unlike Israeli airstrikes on Syria and Iraq, which went unanswered, Tel Aviv is well aware that Iran’s response would be severe and decisive. Iran’s indigenous military capabilities far outpace its neighbors, and over the past four decades, it has developed iron-clad relationships with allies in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and Yemen, who have voiced willingness to defend an Iran under attack by a mutual adversary.
In April 2021, a Syrian missile was able to pass through Israel’s Iron Dome Anti-Rocket System, exploding near the country’s secretive Dimona nuclear reactor. This event could be repeated by allies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and pro-Iranian groups in Syria and Iraq in the case of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
To strike Iran, Israelis will have to cross the airspace of the ‘unfriendly’ countries of Syria and Iraq. Even the Arab states of the Arabian Peninsula are unlikely to permit Israeli warplanes using their territory to attack Iran due to fear of retaliatory Iranian attacks.
The memory of the well-targeted Yemeni missile strikes on the Aramco oil facility in September 2019 – incorrectly attributed to Iran rather than Yemen – drummed home to Gulf states that cause for Iranian retaliatory strikes should be avoided at all costs.
Russia may also oppose the attack as, in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran, the activities of Iranian proxies inside Syria could trigger a renewed crisis in the country’s military-political balance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has spent millions of dollars stabilizing the situation in Syria, does not wish to see Syria upended again. And given Russia’s clout in the UN Security Council, Israel would be reluctant to confront Moscow.
Facing the international community
The US and Europe are currently in Vienna negotiating with Iran to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, which the previous US administration abandoned. US President Joe Biden is keen on quickly reaching a “good nuclear deal” with Iran, in part, to peel Tehran away from its strategic allies in Moscow and Beijing – Washington’s two main global adversaries.
If Israel attacks Iran, Tehran may withdraw from the negotiations, and in retaliation, is likely to raise its 60 percent enrichment level to above 90 percent (suitable for building a nuclear bomb). Biden needs a peaceful West Asia so that he can exit the region’s various quagmires with ease and “pivot to the East” to restrain China and surround Russia, his two most urgent strategic priorities.
According to Foreign Policy, US opposition to attacks on Iran’s nuclear plants has been longstanding, as emphasized in the autobiography of Israel’s former defense minister Ehud Barak, My Country, My Life.
“I want to tell both of you now, as president, we are totally against any action by you to mount an attack on the [Iranian] nuclear plants,” then-US President George W. Bush told Barak and then-premier Ehud Olmert in 2008. “I repeat in order to avoid any misunderstanding, we expect you not to do it. And we’re not going to do it, either, as long as I am president. I wanted it to be clear.”
The Biden administration’s current approach is to return Iran’s nuclear program to the 2015 nuclear deal without war or the use of force.
In an October 2021 article, Dennis Ross, former US President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director for the central region at the National Security Council wrote:
“Although they reject the Iranian justification of actions that move Iran toward a nuclear weapon, Biden administration officials told the Israelis, as I learned recently in Israel, that there was ‘good pressure on Iran and bad pressure’ – citing the example of sabotage at Natanz and Karaj as bad pressure because the Iranians seized on it to enrich to near weapons-grade.”
Dennis Ross comments show that, at that stage, the Americans were not seeking to attack or even sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities, and were intent on preventing the Israelis from attacking Iran.
It is becoming clear that Israeli threats on Iran’s nuclear capabilities are mainly for domestic consumption – and possibly also to keep Israel relevant amidst the fast-moving geopolitical shifts unfolding in West Asia.
Israel’s current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is currently facing relentless criticism from former PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rivals, as well as internal shortages in the country following the pandemic crisis. Attacking a foreign country – or Gaza – is an Israeli staple in diverting public opinion from domestic problems.
Talk of Israeli airstrikes on Iran constitute little more than hollow rhetoric, despite repeated verbal threats from Israeli officials. At this moment, Israel has neither the power nor the means to attack Iran, nor can it act unilaterally against US policy.