18 November 2011

Iran and Israel

If you have been reading international news headlines lately, you must have noticed a flurry of military threats emanating from Israel about Iranian nuclear installation.

The process began in early November with Shimon Peres declaring that "military option against Iran was closer." Ehud Barak chimed in and said that he cannot rule out the military option against Iran.

Russian President Medvedev promptly reacted to this saying that such overheated statements were very dangerous and a military action could have grave consequences

A couple of days later, Leon Panetta, US Defense Secretary joined Medvedev and issued a warning against such an attack.

Since then, the back and forth has been continuing. A friend of mine recently told me that he believed Israel would attack Iranian installations, like the fabled Operation Opera against Saddam's Osirak reactor. And I have been hearing the same view from a number of observers I respect.

However, my contrarian view is that there will be no such attack.

1) Starting with the obvious, if Israelis were planning such an attack, they most certainly would not talk about it.

2) Equally obvious, such an attack would not do much to delay Iranian capabilities, despite detailed analyses from various strategic centers that predict success. Given the dispersed nature of Iranian nuclear facilities such an attack could not destroy the entire program and would only create a slight delay. Indeed, there are no clear answers for such a scenario, only questions and once again I give Israelis more credit than other observers and I doubt that they would take such a huge risk when there is so much uncertainty.

3) Even if the latest IAEA report is accurate and Iran is set to develop nuclear missiles, a nuclear Iran is highly unlikely to be able to use its arsenal against anyone in the region. A twin missile shield system, one in Turkey the other in Israel, openly directed to Iran, will prevent any offensive action on the part of Iranian mullahs. Besides intercepting such a missile attack, the US has enough warheads in the region (i.e. in Turkey) to retaliate on a massive scale. If that is not a deterrent, I don't know what is.

4) Actually, the mullahs do not want any military confrontation as they have a huge number of internal problems. With tightening sanctions, economic hardship is an ever-present reality in Iran and they do not want to exacerbate this with an actual war.

For those who claim that Ahmadinejad is capable of starting a war on his own, I can only say that they need to study the Iranian system. As I said before, he is not the Supreme Leader, he reports to the Supreme Leader. And currently he is not liked by the mullahs. His foes are out to get him, as he was embroiled in a corruption case which resulted him being questioned by the Majlis.

5) China is aware of the US plans to control the distribution of oil and gas in the region and it struck its own deal with Iran to have an independent supply source. In fact, they are the largest buyer of Iranian crude. They would react badly to such an attack. Russia would also join them and that would make the entire region even more volatile. And this is just the opposite of what the US wants or needs. That is one of the reasons Panetta and others have been downplaying the military option.

6) The US is hoping to destabilize the Islamic Republic and possibly have regime change there. An outside attack would have the opposite effect as Iranians would rally around the regime. Instead, by keeping the regime on its toes and by making them spend huge sums on its military capabilities (instead of improving the economy) they hope to repeat their successful Soviet scenario. We should not forget that it was not Reagan who brought the Soviet Union to its knees, as Republicans want us to believe, it was the huge cost of the arms race that did them in.

7) A covert war is already being waged and as a delaying tactic it is at least as effective as a direct attack. And it is a lot less risky. Not to mention much cheaper. First of all, in the last four years, four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated and Iran has been blaming Israel for these killings.

Secondly, a highly sophisticated computer virus called Stuxnet, destroyed Siemens PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) that were used in many of the Iranian nuclear installations. PLCs are found in most manufacturing facilities and they can be programmed to perform a multitude of tasks. But getting a virus to their rootkit is very hard and that required a level of sophistication that is not available to your average hackers. No one knows for sure but it is thought that Stuxnet caused at least a delay of several months maybe a year.

Thirdly, a couple of weeks ago a mysterious explosion in a missile base in southwest Tehran killed 17 people including a senior missile expert. When asked about it the following day, Ehud Barak would not speculate about the causes of the incident but said ominously that there may be more of these explosions.

If no attack is planned what is the purpose of these statements?

I have no inside knowledge but my guess is that there are two reasons for them, one is operational the other strategic.

The operational reason is to make Iranians nervous enough so that they would start moving things around or adding more defensive capabilities around critical installations. That would provide a wealth or information about certain aspects of the nuclear program.

The strategic reason is to keep Iran preoccupied with a possible Israeli attack while Turkey dislodge the Assad regime in Syria.

Iran is aware of the double play Turkey is involved in but has no trump card in that game. It does not want to have a hostile relationship with Turkey. Their border remained unchanged since 1639, which means no hostilities for centuries. A war with Turkey, a member of NATO, is not winnable and escalating tensions or threatening Turkey will not serve much purpose.

On the other hand, Iran does not want Turkey to become a dominant power in the region. And it certainly does not want Turkey to oust Iran's only ally in the Middle East. The problem, Iran does not know how to stop this. And they are scrambling to come up with a leverage.

A senior aide to the Supreme Leader Ali Khameini told reporters in New York that Iran wants to share its nuclear technology with Turkey. It was a rather unexpected declaration and it only makes sense if Iran is aware of the bind it found itself in.

Tellingly, the following day, Turkish Energy Minister issued a curt declaration stating that no such cooperation is envisaged by Turkey.

The next few weeks are critical in terms of the Syrian end game. Iran is fighting to get back in the game but right now the decisive theater is Syria and I doubt that the major players will complicate things unnecessarily by attacking Iran.

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