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The Winds of War: Israel planning military
strike against Iran's nuclear sites.
By Peter S. Probst
Winds of War

Iran has started loading fuel rods into the Bashehr nuclear reactor, the final step in making the plant fully operational by 2011.

I recently returned from Israel where I had been invited to speak at the World Wide Counter-Terrorism Summit. This was the 10th annual conference sponsored by Israel’s International Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT). The four-day conference was organized by Dr. Boaz Gaynor, the founder and director of the ICT, and his seasoned staff. The program attracted an estimated 1,300 attendees from some 90 different countries.

An issue that dominated many of the discussions concerned the threat of a nuclear Iran, and how Israel and the United States would likely respond to the challenge. Virtually every Israeli I spoke to was adamant that Iran could not be permitted to go nuclear. There was less certainty as to the degree and nature of support Israel could expect from its Western allies.

Despite official Israeli declarations that no decision has been made, I came away with the strong impression that at the highest levels of the Israeli government, a decision had been rendered. Israel will launch a military attack against Iranian nuclear facilities, and I believe the target list could well be broadened to ensure that Iran would not represent a serious threat to the Jewish state for years to come. To repeat a much overused phrase, “It is not a question of if, but when.” The conference offered the opportunity to meet and talk with some of Israel’s highest ranking and most knowledgeable authorities on terrorism, as well as to attend a range of workshops that explored a variety of terrorism-related issues. It also provided the attendees an opportunity to compare experiences, explore new viewpoints, and expand their range of contacts. The attendees included top government decision makers, defense, intelligence, and police officials, as well as prominent academic scholars and security industry leaders from all over the world. I was particularly impressed by the active participation of highest-level Israeli officials in what was described as the “Talking Heads Series.” Participants included former heads of Mossad and Shabak (Israel’s external intelligence and internal security services); former ministers of defense; former chiefs of staff of the Israeli Defense Force; former ministers of internal security; current and former commissioners of police; as well as former heads of the National Security Council and others.

In addition, there were a series of workshops that explored topics such as Islamist radicalization, counterterrorism efforts in failed states, fourth generation warfare, and terror and technology. The varied backgrounds and depth of knowledge of those participating in this phase of the conference, coupled with the candor of the Israeli officials, was impressive and made the conference particularly memorable. The open and frank exchange between extremely knowledgeable professionals who do not pull their punches is the hallmark of the ICT conferences and, as a result, I find these gatherings invariably stimulating. I have always come away with new insights and a fuller appreciation of the complexity of the challenges faced by other countries, and the diversity of tactics employed to counter their terrorist adversaries.

On the topic of Iran, there was remarkable consensus. For example, Danny Yatom, former head of Mossad, forcefully stated: “Only military force can stop Iran. Since the sanctions are not enough, I am hopeful that the world will come to its senses and reach the conclusion that to stop the Iranian nuclear arms race, we will have to attack some of their nuclear facilities. If modern air forces, led by the United States, mobilize their capabilities, it is possible, if not to completely remove the threat, to at least delay it for a couple of years. If the world fails to meet the challenge, Israel retains the right of self-defense. Some people say we should pray that Iran does not go nuclear. Praying is good, but we can also take action.” Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli Defense Force chief of staff and minister of defense, observed: “We don’t have the privilege to allow Iran to achieve a nuclear capability. Iran means what it says. Yes, continue the dialogue. Yes, increase the sanctions on Iran. There must also be a military option. I hope the international community will take the necessary steps. To those who say it is possible to contain a nuclear Iran, I say that is not possible.” Boaz Ganor, the founder and director of the ICT, addressed the issue by stating: “A nuclear Iran is unthinkable. It is a strategic threat. Israel is perceived as being strong. Hizbullah and Hamas are deterred, but they will never give up their ambition to destroy Israel. From tiny kids to their top leadership, they all say it. You don’t have to be a prophet to know what Iran will do. Ahmadinejad goes to the United Nations and talks about the destruction of Israel, and nothing happens!”

A similar view was expressed by Don Radlauer, director of the Institute for the Study of Asymmetric Conflict, who in private correspondence explored the applicability of the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and noted: “Some experts assure us that mutually-assured destruction would work as well for Iran and Israel as it did for the U.S. and the USSR, but other experts confidently assert the opposite—that the incineration of Iran could be seen as an acceptable price for the destruction of Israel. Israel cannot afford to be 80% or even 95% sure that deterrence will prevent an Iranian nuclear attack; and thus Israel will almost certainly be forced to choose a pre-emptive strategy if sanctions and negotiations fail.” The September 21 issue of Israel Today Magazine featured an article titled “Israel: No choice but to attack Iran,” which I believe succinctly sums up the position of most high-level Israeli decision makers.

The Price to be Paid

Among Israelis, I found general agreement that the country would pay a very heavy price if it launched a pre-emptive strike. However, most also believe it would be better to take their losses up front than wait until later, when Iran’s position would most certainly be stronger and Israeli casualties most certainly higher. It is a given that Tel Aviv and much of the country would come under ferocious missile bombardment and suffer significant casualties. Terrorist groups such as Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah, as well as the al Quds Force, the elite arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that specializes in covert, extraterritorial operations, would attack targets inside Israel as well as Jewish and U.S. targets in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Worldwide embassies would be bombed, synagogues burned, and Israelis and Jews murdered.

The Logic of Inevitability

I see the following considerations at play and events unfolding in the following manner. Israel would not attack Iran without first advising the U.S. administration, but this should not be confused with asking permission, which is something I do not believe is in the cards. Because the Israelis are absolutely convinced that the survival of the nation is at stake, the U.S. does not have leverage to veto an attack, but depending on the situation, we can influence the timing and, perhaps, the scale of such an operation. I assume the Israelis are making the argument with Washington that because their attack is inevitable, it is in the U.S. national interest to fully support it. A nuclear Iran would be a disaster for all concerned, and because several of the nuclear sites reportedly are beyond the range of Israeli aircraft, and Israel lacks the special ordnance needed to penetrate the underground installations, American participation would be needed if an attack were to be fully successful.

I believe the Israelis would argue that even if the U.S. were to sit on the sidelines and proclaim its non-involvement, we, nevertheless, would be seen as complicit and reap the consequences, which could be considerable. To minimize the costs to the U.S., they would argue we really have little choice but to fully engage. The logic is compelling, and in my opinion an accurate reflection of today’s reality. I do not believe that an Israeli attack would be limited to destroying or disrupting Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but would rather comprise a series of operations designed to deny Iran the ability to challenge Israel now or in the near future. Targets would extend beyond the Iranian nuclear weapons program and include Iranian conventional and unconventional capabilities, sites, and individuals involved in their biological, chemical weapons, and missile programs. Leadership and installations of organizations such as their intelligence and security services, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its al Quds force, as well as terrorist groups such as Hizbullah, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and Hamas would be targeted for obliteration. I would not be surprised to learn that Israeli special teams have been working for some time on the ground inside Iran to facilitate the targeting of lucrative sites; the sabotage of critical infrastructure, particularly communications, energy, and transport; and the targeting of key individuals who represent Iran’s military, government, and scientific elite.

Doubtless, such an attack would significantly change the current balance of power within the region. Some at the conference were concerned as to how Arab and other Muslim states would respond. There is a school of thought, to which I subscribe, that the Arab states would be secretly delighted and turn a blind eye, although no doubt there would be official protestations, but even these might be muted. The Arab streets might be aflame, but many Arab governments would secretly applaud. Jeffery Goldberg, in his excellent article in the September issue of The Atlantic, relates a conversation he had with Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to the United States. The ambassador bluntly stated that his country would support a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He further noted that if the U.S. permitted Iran to cross the nuclear threshold, the small countries of the Gulf would have no choice but to leave the American orbit and, for self-protection, ally with Iran. Countries, much like people, most always go with the strong horse. In his article, Goldberg also reported that several Arab leaders have suggested that America’s standing in the Middle East depends on its willingness to confront Iran, and argue that an aerial attack on a handful of Iranian facilities would not be as complicated or as messy as invading Iraq. One Arab foreign minister told Goldberg: “This is not a discussion about the invasion of Iran. We are hoping for the pinpoint striking of several dangerous facilities. America could do this very easily.”

The Saudi Role

Saudi Arabia has a historic and deep-seated antipathy towards Iran that is grounded in the ancient Arab-Persian rivalry and the Sunni-Shia rift. Over the years, the Saudis increasingly have come to see Iran as a major threat and themselves in the Iranian crosshairs. Our recent $60 billion arms sale to the Saudis, the largest ever, is to help Saudi Arabia become an effective bulwark against Iranian expansionism, filling the vacuum left by the destruction of Iraq that for years had fulfilled that role. Saddam Hussein may have been a monster, but sometimes it takes a monster to fight a monster. And there was much to be said for having two monsters at each other’s throats and trying to calibrate the intensity of their struggle to enable each to inflict maximum damage on the other. Although the Saudis may soon possess state-of-the-art equipment, it will be of little use unless its military is trained, exercised, and fully proficient in its use—a level of professionalism that could take considerable time to achieve. I, therefore, conclude that the Saudis would permit us to use their territory to carry out air and other operations against Iran, while requesting that we maintain as low a profile as possible.

Living in “Interesting Times”

An issue of great concern is how Shia Iran will ultimately relate to Shia-dominated Iraq. There have been numerous and credible media reports of Iranian intelligence operatives working in-country not only providing weapons, training, and operational guidance to Iraqi insurgents, but also engaging in aggressive political-action operations that involve not only Shia militias and revered clerical figures but also target the highest levels of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. I do not see Iraq being able to maintain a viable coalition government, and believe it likely such efforts will fail, with Iraq dividing along ethnic lines. It may be that only a strong man can hold that fractious country together, and I do not see anyone on the horizon who might fill that bill. The nightmare scenario, of course, would be if the Shia south not only becomes a pawn of Tehran but, in effect, a rump state of a “Greater Iran.” However, Israel is not a country to sit idly while its enemies plot its destruction. Escalating tensions between Israel and Iran and a series of recent incidents strongly suggest a well-planned campaign of sabotage and covert action is under way to cripple Iranian capabilities and keep the leadership off balance.

In Iran and Europe, according to credible media reports, Iranian scientists and key figures in the Iranian procurement and enrichment program have disappeared or been assassinated. Some are believed to have defected. There have been mysterious explosions at Iranian military sites, and Israel reportedly has worked to introduce defective components critical to the Iranian nuclear program into the supply chain. Mossad and Western intelligence agencies reportedly have recruited key scientists within the nuclear program to report on its progress, and other assets to carry out acts of sabotage. Recently Tehran reported that it had uncovered a “nest of spies” within the program, the intent of the publicity no doubt being to discourage others from following a similar path. But by far the most intriguing development has been the introduction of the Stuxnet worm that apparently was specifically developed to attack supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems used to control complex industrial systems such as those that manage critical infrastructure or manufacturing processes. SCADA systems are notoriously vulnerable to such attack, a fact that has been publicized in the open literature for years. The Stuxnet worm apparently targets and seizes control of these systems, and Iran is not known for its ability to mount effective cyber defenses or counteroperations. News articles report that the Stuxnet worm has damaged nuclear facilities in Natanz and delayed the start-up of the Bushehr Nuclear Power plant. Because of the complexity and sophistication of the Stuxnet program, most reports suggest it could have only been developed by a nation-state, prime suspects being Israel or the United States. The worm and the manner in which it has been employed has been described as a working and fearsome prototype of a cyber-weapon that will lead to the creation of a new arms race in the world.

Private Thoughts

Although most everyone with whom I spoke sees these developments as a campaign to delay and disrupt the Iranian program, I would argue that rather than simply being indicative of a simmering situation, what is currently under way is the ramp-up to the actual attack. I suspect one of the first indicators that the Israeli operation has launched could be cyber attacks against Iranian air defense, communications, and command and control systems, rendering them impotent. The Iranians are anything but dense. They can see the writing on the wall. Iran is already seeking to renew talks, no doubt to buy time for its program. They probably believe such a strategy could exacerbate differences among U.S. decision makers and strengthen the hand of those who would argue that, just one more time, we should give peace a chance. There is always the possibility that if Israel were to come under intense pressure to stand down, it might precipitate a decision, seize the initiative, accelerate its timetable, and present the U.S. with a fait accompli.

As things stand now, I do not believe an Israeli attack would occur before January and would most likely take place in late spring or summer when a new and presumably more hard-line American Congress would be in place; the effects of the sanctions regime and other measures could be better assessed; patience exhausted; and Saudi Arabia would be receiving significant deliveries of the promised American military equipment, presumably accompanied by American advisors, trainers, and support personnel. An increased U.S. military presence on Saudi soil, however, could well generate its own set of problems, but that is best left for another article. I have no doubt that the Iranian leadership has gamed out the situation, and its military and ruling elites can foresee losing all the power and privilege they have accrued since the revolution should they continue on their present course. The price exacted by the Americans as a consequence of Saddam’s intransigence must be fresh in their memory. They could decide that the Israeli attack is likely to be similarly devastating, and when coupled with American military power, a change of policy may no longer be a matter of choice but rather one of survival. An Iranian “charm offensive” may be in the offing. On the other hand, if the hard-liners fail to back down, an optimist could argue that the military might move to protect its equities and continued hard-line intransigence could presage regime change.

Whether charm offensive or regime change, I believe it is too late. Given recent revelations about the extent and sophistication of the North Koreans’ nuclear program, their history as a proliferator, their long-standing covert relationship with Iran, and the failure of U.S. intelligence to detect this game-changing development, an Israeli attack, in my view, becomes “drop dead certain.” The undetected nature of the North Korean advance must have shaken Israel’s confidence in U.S. capabilities to provide early warning. For us, a failure to anticipate an Iranian breakout would be an embarrassment. For the Israelis, it could be catastrophic. They/we have no choice. For the Iranians, the clock has run out. As the Chinese might say: “We are living in interesting times!”

Author bio

Peter Probst served most of his 30-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Secretary of Defense addressing future terrorist threats and the development of strategies, tactics, and policy initiatives to counter them. He is now a private consultant advising government and Fortune 100 business leaders on issues of terrorism, political warfare, and infrastructure vulnerability. A highly articulate public speaker, Mr. Probst is often asked to address government, private-sector, and academic audiences on issues pertaining to intelligence, terrorism, and asymmetric conflict.

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