Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 March 2012
Issue No. 1090
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

When the time is right, Israel will bomb Iran

Some commentators like to see Israel as always dependent on the US in the moves it makes, but this is not true, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

The statement by one of our presidential hopefuls, former minister Mahmoud El-Sherif, was quite remarkable. He said Israel "will not dare to" attack Iran because the latter is likely to retaliate with long-range missiles. El-Sherif may be a man of impeccable manners and his experience in healthcare and rural development is not to be belittled, but as an expert in strategic matters he is on thin ice.

Someone else, with comparable knowledge of such matters, opined that Israel could not attack Iran because the US wouldn't allow it, and because Russia and China are against it. Others believe that Obama cannot address a regional nuisance in an election year, that he is too busy bringing back troops to send them out again, etc.

Speculation is easy, but speculation based on half- truths could be a dangerous thing. Iraq was once invaded because of allegations about its nuclear programme, so one must weigh all the available facts before forecasting the future.

Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and a Syrian one in 2007. In the latter case, Israel initially pressed the US to wage the strike on its behalf, but George W Bush, reluctant to open another battlefront, demurred. The Israelis waged the attack in secret, kept quiet about it for a while, and then leaked the news to embarrass the Syrians, who only then went complaining to the UN Security Council.

There is a pattern there. Perhaps you'd think that Iran is different from Iraq and Syria, which is in many ways true. But the same rule applies: Israel and the US -- and many countries in the region -- are dead set against Tehran owning nuclear bombs.

So will Israel attack Iran?

It all depends on whether the time is right and on how real is the threat of Iran making a bomb. The tipping point may be reached, I would say, if Iran decides to move its nuclear facilities to secure areas, as in the mountainous parts of the country where a missile strike could become useless. If the Iranians show any sign of moving in this direction, then the possibility of a strike is not to be ruled out.

At this point, let's consider the difference between the US and Israeli approach to long distance warfare. In the US case, the tendency is to rely on the Air Force and missile strikes, and in some cases -- such as Serbia and Iraq -- to throw in a bit of regime change while they're at it.

Israel is different. Lacking the juggernaut abilities of the US military, the Israelis are likely to go for selected "nodes" in the Iranian nuclear system. Israeli planes, flying stealthily over Syria then getting refuelled in northern Iraq, should be able to perform such a task with a reasonable chance of success.

Israel is not going to try to eliminate the entire Iranian nuclear programme, but to cause it a debilitating setback, thus humiliating Tehran and confronting it with difficult choices.

Iran may decide to fire missiles on Israel, where they may be blocked by Israel's anti-missile systems, including the Iron Dome and Arrow (recently quite successful against rocket attacks from Gaza). Such attacks would give the Israelis an excuse to retaliate with much more accurate missiles. And if any Israeli civilians are hurt in Iranian attacks, Israeli will make sure that Iran gets a taste of its own medicine.

Iran's other option is to unleash its allies against Israel. But which allies? The Syrian regime, fighting for its own life, can be hardly persuaded to go picking on the Israelis. And Hizbullah, however tempted, may not want to expose itself to the wrath of the international community in case it triggered hostilities in South Lebanon.

Closing the Strait of Hormuz seems to be the only course of action left to Iran, along with attempts to destabilise selected Gulf States. This is easier said than done, considering that the subsequent rise in oil prices will most likely rally the international community against Tehran.

In conclusion, one cannot to rule out an Israeli strike on Iran. Just as it did in the case of Iraq and Iran, Israel may once again choose to go down this road. I am not saying that this is going to happen tomorrow. So long as the tipping point is not reached, the Israelis may refrain from striking at Iran.

Meanwhile, Tehran will have to cope with the consequences of stricter sanctions. International isolation is not a something that the Iranians can afford to snub for long. Even countries that are opposed to a military action against Iran are prone to decreasing their oil imports from that country. Iran is not exactly free to do what it pleases, and Israel is not as incapable of action as some commentators would have us think.

In today's Middle East, never say never.

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