Israel and Iran are fighting a not-so-secret clandestine war. But Israel is likely to attack Iran’s nuclear program this spring, making it official.
For all practical purposes, the state of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran are already at war. Consider Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s comment after the mysterious explosion at a Revolutionary Guard missile base near Tehran on Saturday: “There should be many more,” he said in an interview with Israeli Defense Force Radio. In this, he once again confirmed what has become an open secret within Israel’s defense establishment: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his former special-forces commander, Barak, have decided that Israel must attack Iran.
When that attack happens, most likely in the early spring, Israel’s second Iranian war will officially begin. The first has been going on through much of the last decade in the battles Israel has been fighting with Iran’s local proxies—Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip—and in the secret war being waged against Iran’s nuclear program. The front lines of this war extend thousands of miles, from Bandar-Abbas, an Iranian port on the Persian Gulf, to the eastern Mediterranean and in the Arabian Peninsula, northeast Africa, and north into Turkey. This secret war involves the interdiction of Iranian arms bound for Hezbollah and Hamas and of vital components bound for Iran’s nuclear facilities. Few of these operations, such as the commandeering of cargo ships carrying missiles, are ever revealed as official Israeli actions.
When senior Revolutionary Guards officers, Iranian nuclear scientists, or key Hamas and Hezbollah operatives die or disappear under mysterious circumstances, Israel never takes credit, but it also never seems to dissuade the media from pushing the Israel-did-it angle. Same goes for Stuxnet, the computer worm that plagued Iran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz and Bushehr, which contained Jewish history clues in its code and featured briefly in a farewell video shown last year at an event honoring departing Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. (Stuxnet is widely believed to be the work of Israel, and the Jewish state encourages that view without actually confirming it.) Saturday’s missile-base explosion, which killed Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, the founder of Iran’s missile program, was only the latest act in this not-so-secret secret war.
The great champion of clandestine war against Iran was former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. During his time at the helm of Israel’s spy agency, from 2002 until early this year, Dagan argued that the only way to counter Iran’s nuclear threat is through secret warfare, close coordination with the Western powers, and quiet alliances with Arab regimes threatened by Iran, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Dagan is a believer in the Ariel Sharon view of things—namely, that the Iranian nuclear program is a problem for the whole world, not just the Jewish state, and therefore Israel should do everything to avoid seeming like it is facing Iran on its own. In the meantime, clandestine warfare can slow Iran’s nuclear progress.
Netanyahu’s decision to replace Dagan—coupled with Barak’s insistence on removing popular army chief Ashkenazi in February—was seen by many as an intentional strategy to remove opponents of a military strike on Iran from positions of influence. In his last week as spy chief, Dagan infuriated Netanyahu and Barak by telling a group of journalists that Iran would not achieve military nuclear capability until 2015—a clear warning against a military strike in the near future, which he has since repeated emphatically in various forums.
The changes at the top of Israel’s security establishment, along with reports on intensive preparations for a strike, prompted U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to visit Israel in early October. Panetta publicly stressed during his visit that the United States is “very concerned” about the Iranian threat but emphasized that countering that threat “depends on the countries working together.” Panetta demanded that Jerusalem warn Washington in advance of an attack on Iran, but he did not receive clear assurances it would, according to American diplomatic sources.
Meantime, Israeli preparations continue. In late October, six Israeli Air Force squadrons sent aircraft 1,500 miles across the Mediterranean for a joint exercise over Sardinia with the Italian and German air forces. This is just one of over a dozen such exercises that have taken place in the last three years, in which Israeli pilots have trained in flying long distances over unknown terrain and facing fighter pilots and anti-aircraft batteries of foreign forces. Fighter pilots aren’t the only component in these maneuvers: Aerial refueling planes and search-and-rescue helicopter teams also take part. The object of these exercises is clear: to prepare an air force that primarily operates in the nearby theaters of Gaza and Lebanon to undertake long-range missions.
The lieutenant colonel who commanded the most recent exercise said cryptically after returning to Israel that “there was no mention of the third circle in the exercise, but we are training over distances and preparing ourselves for all terrains so you could say that it contributes to our long-range preparedness.” The “third circle” is the current air-force euphemism for Iran. (The first circle is the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel’s immediate borders; the second circle is countries around Israel.)
Ever since Saddam Hussein launched 39 Iraqi Scud missiles against Israel during the Gulf War in 1991, the Israeli Air Force has been preparing for one primary mission, a long-range attack against weapons of mass destruction aimed at the Jewish state. The lion’s share of Israel’s defense budget has been devoted to this. Five new squadrons of the most advanced versions of the F-15 and F-16, specifically modified for the long-range strike roles, have been acquired since 1998. And the numbers of spy satellites, aerial tankers, unmanned reconnaissance drones, and search-and-rescue helicopters have all tripled in the past two decades.
“Ninety-percent of our equipment and training is for a much larger war. The fighter jets weren’t built for attacking Gaza or even Lebanon; the real war is where we will have to prove ourselves,” one squadron commander recently admitted to me. The air force is eager to do just that. As one brigadier general told me last year, “Come the hour, I will have pilots breaking down my office door demanding to go on the mission.” And come that hour, when at least some of Israel’s defense chiefs are expected to counsel against a strike, it will be the Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, the son of members of the Irgun, who will give Netanyahu the necessary backing, promising the decision-makers that an air-strike on Iran will succeed.
Yet even the most self-confident fighter jockeys cannot ignore the scores of Israeli and American analysts claiming that Israel lacks sufficient planes and its bases are too far away to totally eliminate Iran’s nuclear program. “We have no illusions,” one air force general told me. “We will attack Iran successfully but that won’t be the end of it. Two, or three, or five years later, we will have to go back there again.”
The decision to go to war with Iran is not a political one. It is one of the few issues that transcends Israel’s left-right divide. Benny Begin and Moshe Yaalon, two of the most hardline right-wing ministers in the “Octet Forum,” the Israeli Cabinet’s main decision-making body, are currently opposed to an attack because they believe a military strike will cause a massive backlash from Iran and its proxies and should only be a very last resort. The motives of Netanyahu and Barak are more personal and historical than ideological. The prime minister, the son of a historian, views the Iranian issue through the prism of Jewish survival. In his view, safeguarding Israel against a nuclear threat is the generation’s duty, which has fallen to him. As leader of the opposition, from 2006 to 2009, Netanyahu constantly compared Iran to Germany circa 1938 and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler. As prime minister, he has refrained from this terminology but his perspective remains unchanged.
Barak also sees the challenge in generational terms. Two months shy of 70, he looks around and sees no one who, in his opinion, can be entrusted with Israel’s security. Israel’s great founders are gone, save for President Shimon Peres, whom Barak never rated highly (and who is against an attack on Iran). Barak is now the nation’s wise old man, the only responsible grown-up left standing. But his arrogant manner has alienated much of the public and the politicians. Divorced from the Labor party of which he was never an integral part, he leads a splinter faction that does not guarantee him re-election to the Knesset. Convinced that no one else can lead the nation in this challenge, in what could be his last year in government, he won’t let go without ensuring Israel’s security for another generation.
If there are any politics involved in the final decision to attack Iran, they won’t be Israeli. President Barack Obama is the one man who can prevent Israel from going to war. He will have two ways of doing this, if he so chooses. Come this spring, when weather conditions over Iran ensure better bombing results, if the polls indicate him winning a second term, he may have sufficient political and diplomatic clout to order Israel to desist. But in a close presidential race, with a GOP contender accusing him of going soft on Iran, Obama’s only way to block an Israeli attack on Iran would be sending the U.S. Air Force to do the job instead.
An Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear program would be tougher today than a few years ago, but it would still be likely to succeed