Will Israel Attack Iran? (And If It Does, Can It Really Stop Tehran’s Nuclear Program?)

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Nir Elias / Reuters

An Israeli air force F-15I fighter flies over an air force pilots' graduation ceremony at Hatzerim air base in southern Israel Dec. 29, 2011.

In the effort to stir global action against the Iranian nuclear program, Israel has played its hand brilliantly.  Having twice sent fighter-bombers to erase nuclear reactors in hostile states — to Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 — its conspicuous preparations against Iran form a firm flank in the effort to corral world opinion. This week, as the European Union joined the United States in launching exceptionally potent sanctions on Iran’s petroleum industry and central bank, a senior French official explained the urgency as follows:  “We must do everything possible to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran.”

But could Israel go it alone?

The question is addressed in detail in the latest print edition of TIME. The full article is available to subscribers here. But as quoted by a senior security official, the assessment offered to the cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last autumn was not altogether encouraging:

“I informed the cabinet we have no ability to hit the Iranian nuclear program in a meaningful way,” the official quoted a senior commander as saying. “If I get the order I will do it, but we don’t have the ability to hit in a meaningful way.”

The key word is”meaningful.” The working assumption behind Israel’s military preparations has been that, to be worth mounting, a strike must be likely to delay Tehran’s nuclear capabilities by at least two years. But given the wide geographic dispersion of Iran’s atomic facilities–combined with the limits of Israel’s air armada–the Jewish State can expect to push back the Iranian program only by a matter of months — a year at most, according to the official, who attributed the estimate to the Atomic Energy Commission that Israel has charged with assessing the likely effect of a strike.

That assessment comes as no surprise to military experts both inside and outside Israel.  “That’s a perfectly logical calculation, for somebody who actually knows how Israel assesses this,” says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  Perhaps the most respected military analyst working stateside, Cordesman went on for a while in our telephone interview about how weary he’d grown of reading back-of-the-envelope estimates of “former Israeli officials.”  The reality, he says, is that the decisive, actual capabilities are known only to the military professionals who have the details in front of them.  Even then, the course of action – in this case, whether Israel will launch the attack it has spent more than a decade equipping and training its military for — will be determined by more than strictly military matters:

Israel is going to act strategically. It’s going to look at the political outcome of what it says and does, not simply measure this in terms of some computer game and what the immediate tactical impact is.

What everyone agrees, however, is that as formidable as the Israeli Air Force is, it simply lacks the capacity to mount the kind of sustained, weeks-long aerial bombardment required to knock down Iran’s nuclear program, with the requisite pauses for damage assessments followed by fresh waves of bombing.  Without forward platforms like air craft carriers, Israel’s air armada must rely on mid-air refueling to reach targets more than 1,000 miles away, and anyone who reads Israel’s order of battle sees it simply doesn’t have but a half dozen or so.  Another drawback noted by analysts is Israel’s inventory of bunker-busting bombs, the sort that penetrate deep into concrete or rock that shield the centrifuge arrays at Natanz and now Fordow, near Qum.  Israel has loads of GBU-28s, which might penetrate Natanz. But only the U.S. Air Force has the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator that could take on Fordow, the mountainside redoubt where critics suspect Iran would enrich uranium to military levels.

Still, Israel could launch a surprise strike of a single wave and do significant damage.  And sometime this year it probably will, according to the Israeli author of  “Will Israel Attack Iran?” the New York Times Magazine story that went online Wednesday.  The piece begins in the high-rise apartment of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and more or less maintains that perspective throughout.  The bottom line is attributed not to an individual or institution but to a state: “Israel believes that these platforms have the capacity to cause enough damage to set the Iranian nuclear project back by three to five years.”

It’s also entirely possible, of course, that Israel’s credible threat to go it alone is both sincere and, at the same time, understood as a wonderfully effective motivator for sanctions and other coercive measures short of war. (Indeed, amid another round of Strait of Hormuz threats by Iranian politicians, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared today that his country was ready to talk about its nuclear program–though he insisted it was not going to give it up.) The world paid a lot more attention than it might have to the Nov. 8 report of the IAEA — the one detailing Iran’s efforts to prepare a nuclear weapon — because in the fortnight before its release, Israel fairly thrummed with debate over whether it should launch an attack.  There’s surely a limit how many times the threat can be made and remain credible. Already, the dynamic between Jerusalem and Washington is being compared to Fred and Grady in  “Sanford and Son” — “Hold me back!”  But as enriched uranium piles up inside the mountain outside Qum, the calendar may well provide the suspense.