Pace Bolton, I’m Betting Against an Israeli Air Strike on Iran’s Nuke Facilities


Osirak was quite a hike, and Iran is even farther

In today’s Washington Post, former UN Ambassador John Bolton stops just short of openly rooting for Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities:

Iran’s nuclear threat was never in doubt during its presidential campaign, but the post-election resistance raised the possibility of some sort of regime change. That prospect seems lost for the near future or for at least as long as it will take Iran to finalize a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.

Accordingly, with no other timely option, the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable. Israel is undoubtedly ratcheting forward its decision-making process. President Obama is almost certainly not.

The usual suspects are outraged. One HuffPo commenter said “I would take foreign policy advice from Ronald McDonald before I would take advice on where to buy a cheeseburger from John Bolton.” (Much as I disagree on substance, I gotta admit that is a pretty good line.)

John_R._BoltonBolton is nothing if not consistent — the day before the fateful Iranian election, he was in the Wall Street Journal openly speculating about how Iran might react to such a strike.  Out of six possible responses, he judged that increased Iranian support for terrorism was most likely, edging out a direct missile strike against Israel (because Israel might respond with nukes).

As a Bolton-loving, pro-Israel, Saddam-overthrow-approving neocon, I have to say that some part of me is rooting for an Israeli pre-emptive strike as well.  But they couldn’t do it without crossing U.S.-controlled airspace, and I don’t see that happening.

There’s nothing new about all this speculation, of course.  In 2007, two “MIT eggheads” published a detailed paper titled “Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities.” According to the UK Register:

Raas and Long skate over the massive diplomatic problems that would accompany an Israeli strike. The planes would have to fly over Turkey, Syria, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia: and/or American-occupied Iraq. Turkey and Jordan would be extremely angry, but conceivably might not shoot at the Israelis. Syria surely would. America probably wouldn’t, and arguably would have to be consulted in advance anyway, but all in all the Israeli airmen might have to fight before they even reached [Iran], and perhaps again before they got home. The two authors are surely correct to assume that Israel could never get away with more than a single lightning raid; international outrage would surely prohibit any sustained campaign.

Those three words — “America probably wouldn’t” — might seem like an understatement.  My initial reaction was of course America wouldn’t shoot at Israeli fighters.  I certainly hope we would not.  But the more I think about it, the more I think “probably not” is the right assessment.

The MIT eggheads opine:

Raas and Long suggest that a “strike package” of 50 US-made F-15 and F-16 jets — a considerable proportion of the IAF’s current strength — could potentially wreck Iran’s ability to build nukes, using conventional weapons already in the Israeli inventory.

Those F-15 and F-16 jets are the same fighters Israel used 28 years ago when they took out Saddam’s nuke facility at Osirak, according to the writeup in Wikipedia.  (Yes, yes, Wikipedia’s not authoritative, blah blah blah — but I tend to trust the Wikipedians when they cite footnoted sources, as in this case.)  A look at the map above immediately makes clear the logistical challenges of an Israeli strike on Iran, especially since the much-easier Osirak operation was dicey in the first place.

One of Wikipedia’s footnotes leads to the text of a 2001 speech by an Israeli Ambassador, in which he said:

Ten years later, Dick Cheney told me that if Israel not made this preemptive attack [on Osirak], the Gulf War may have yielded a different result.

Cheney — talk about the usual suspects!

And therein lies my point.  There’s a new American sheriff in town, and Mr. Obama is clearly less supportive of Israel’s security needs than his predecessor.  I’m no expert on military capabilities — I wouldn’t even qualify as a dilettante — but it’s inconceivable to me that Israel could carry out a strike against Iran without American acquiesence at the very least.  Remember that even before the war in Iraq, America was enforcing no-fly zones in the northern and southern portions of Iraq.

F-15Iran’s efforts to blame the U.S. for the recent rioting in Tehran are transparently silly, but that hasn’t kept them from making the accusation.  Obama has shown what I and others consider to be excessive concern with what Iran thinks about us.  So it stands to reason that even as I write this, American diplomats are telling Israeli diplomats to pay no attention to what that man with the white mustache says in the Washington Post.

Would Israel attack Iran even over the strenuous objections of the Obama administration?  It’s certainly conceivable.  The question is, how far would Obama go to deter an Israeli attack?  I don’t for a moment think that any American official is eager to shoot down an Israeli fighter — but would they scramble American jets to try to intercept and wave off the Israelis?  And if those jets get within range of each other, what would each side’s rules of engagement be?

Any such confrontation would “probably” (there’s that word again) not permanently cripple U.S.-Israeli relations, but I don’t think Israel will want to risk it at a time when even the chief of Mossad thinks an Iranian nuclear threat is still years away.  So I’ll be very surprised in Israel actually goes through with a strike on Iraq’s nukes, at least in the near future.  But if it turns out I’m wrong — if Israel does take on Iran — I know who’s side I’ll be on.

(Map and photos of Bolton and F-15 from Wikipedia)