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War Games

Would Israel launch a preemptive strike—despite U.S. opposition—to prevent an Iranian bomb? Despite its bluster, probably not.

Yossi Melman
April 15, 2010
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility.(Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility.(Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

If you listen to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and follow his use of historical analogies, you are left with no doubt: A nuclear bomb in the hands of Iran would pose an intolerable threat to the Jewish state. This week, Netanyahu repeated what he said in April 2009, a few weeks after he was sworn in as prime minister, when he delivered a keynote speech at an event marking the Day of Remembrance, the holiday that honors the victims of the Holocaust. “We will not allow Holocaust deniers to commit a second Holocaust of the Jewish people,” he said, referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his country’s nuclear ambitions. “This is the ultimate commitment of the state of Israel and this is my ultimate commitment as the prime minister.”

Such a statement must lead to only one conclusion: Israel will do everything in its power to prevent Iran from having its first nuclear device, including the use of military force.

Such a notion is also supported by precedents: Twice during the last three decades Israeli warplanes destroyed nuclear facilities built by its enemies.

The first attack occurred on June 7, 1981. Eight U.S.-made F-16s, supported by eight F-15s, took off from an Israeli Air Force base near the Red Sea resort of Eilat. They penetrated Jordanian and Saudi-Arabian air spaces without permission and without detection and reached the French-made Osirak Nuclear Reactor near Baghdad, which is also known as Tammuz. The raid lasted two minutes.

“It was a piece of cake,” recalled Brigadier General Relik Shafir, who flew one of the planes. (His partner was Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in the Columbia Shuttle disaster in 2004.) “The planning and practicing for the Iraqi mission were meticulous,” he told me in an interview a few years ago. “The execution was relatively easy. We flew at a very low altitude, a few meters above the ground. No one saw us. There was no resistance on our way there. Only when we reached the target were we fired at. It was scattered anti-aircraft fire, nothing serious. I was more excited about the historic and national significance and symbolism of the raid than by its operational danger and risks, which were relatively low. I saw the reactor dome and dropped my bombs from a height of two miles. It was a clear and big target.”

The attack was a classic preemptive strike aiming to prevent the overly ambitious Iraqi president Saddam Hussein from producing nuclear bombs. This was also the first time one state destroyed a nuclear facility of another.

Former Israeli premier Menachem Begin, a man deeply influenced by the Holocaust, had ordered the raid. He’d had to overcome the objections of some of his cabinet colleagues and senior military and intelligence chiefs, who had feared the Arab world’s response and international condemnation.

As opposition leader at the time, Shimon Peres, who is considered the driving force behind Israel’s decision to become a nuclear power in the late 1950s, warned Begin that Israel would be internationally isolated and become “a thorn in the desert.”

Begin, however, was undeterred. He frequently used the words “never again,” which Netanyahu echoes today: “Never again” in the history of mankind would the Jewish people face an existential threat.

After the raid, Begin’s strong conviction—described by commentators as the “Begin Doctrine”—held that Israel would never allow any country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons that could threaten its existence.

The next time the Begin Doctrine was tested was in September 2007. This time the attack was directed at a nuclear reactor Syria was building on the banks of the Euphrates River, near its borders with Iraq and Turkey. The Syrian reactor was constructed with North Korean technology and expertise, modeled on the Pyongyang reactor, and partly financed by Iran.

Operationally, the second raid resembled the first. Formations of Israeli Air Force F-16 and F-15 fighters took off from the Ramat David base in northern Israel and flew at low altitude, this time over the Mediterranean. They penetrated Syria’s air space near its border with Turkey without being detected and fired missiles from a distance of 40 kilometers. The Syrian air defenses were blinded by electronic warfare. By the time they realized what was happening, it was too late: The reactor had been completely destroyed.

There are a few outstanding differences between the two attacks. Before the attack against the Iraqi reactor, Israel shared its intentions with no one, not even its main strategic ally, the United States. After the raid, Israel took full credit and responsibility. In the Syrian case, Israel, led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, informed the United States a few hours before the attack and since then has neither confirmed nor denied its action.

If Netanyahu decided, this year or the next, to order the IAF to attack Iran in order to prevent it from having nuclear bombs, he would be implementing the Begin Doctrine for the third time.


Israel’s domestic attitude and its international image are shaped by the two successful attacks. These attacks created the belief and impression that the IAF could do anything it decided to do and that Israeli leaders, regardless of their political affiliation, were ready to make bold and risky decisions to protect Israel. Some Israeli leaders and military commanders became prisoners of these myths, as did Israel’s international reputation, especially in the popular media. The two strikes have acquired a life of their own, a legacy with no relevance to reality.

In the last year, while Netanyahu and some Israeli leaders have increased their statements about “never again,” other Israeli leaders and military chiefs have come to terms with reality. True, their public rhetoric still echoes Netanyahu’s concerns, but in private their language is cautious and less bombastic. They understand the political and diplomatic complexities of the Middle East, the operational ramifications on Israel, and the worldwide economic and strategic implications of a war against Iran.

No one better reflects this new spirit than General Shafir, now 56 years old and a high-tech entrepreneur who is well equipped by his professional experience and knowledge to assess Israel’s capabilities. “The Iranians drew lessons from our attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor,” he told me. “Unlike Iraq, whose whole nuclear program was concentrated in the reactor, the Iranians spread their nuclear facilities around the country. Some of them are located in the eastern parts of Iran beyond the reach of Israel. They strengthened their facilities by building them in underground bunkers.” These are facilities whose existence is already known: the Isfahan uranium conversion plant; the Natanz uranium enrichment plant; the Qom enrichment plant; and a few more sites, located inside secret military bases of the Revolutionary Guards associated with “weaponization,” where Iran is clandestinely working on the “military dimensions” of its program. Some of these sites are known to the U.S., British, Israeli, and German intelligence communities but not to the public.

Another reflection of the sober mood is that of Major General Dan Halutz, the former chief of staff and a former commander of the IAF. Halutz resigned three years ago following the 2006 war in Lebanon against the Hezbollah. The war is unjustly perceived by the Israeli public as a failure, despite its strategic and diplomatic successes. In February 2010, Halutz, now a businessman, published his memoir, At Eye Level, which is very apologetic and seeks to defend the war he prepared and led. In the final chapter of the book in which he deals with Israel’s strategic 21st-century challenges, Halutz devotes a few lines to Iran. “It’s a too big a target for us,” he argues, writing in Hebrew. He explained his position in a television interview: “Israel can’t handle [Iran] on its own.”

Both of Israel’s current defense leaders—the chief of staff, Major General Gabi Ashkenazi, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak—are considered cautious by nature and checks on the sometimes hasty Netanyahu. Both played key roles in the decision to bomb Syria’s reactor, and both expressed private doubts and reservations about the wisdom of an Israeli attack on Iran. The fact that Ashkenazi will be replaced by the end of the year, after four years in office, might also indicate that Barak has no plans to send Israeli pilots and missile operators into action. At the end of 2010 all major Israeli military and intelligence chiefs will be replaced: Meir Dagan, head of Mossad; Yuval Diskin, head of Shabak, the domestic security service; General Amos Yadlin, head of military intelligence; and Ashkenazi. Such wholesale changes at the top of the military command are hardly evidence of a nation that is seriously preparing for a military assault. While it is not known who will replace Ashkenazi, one of the leading candidates is Yoav Galant, the current commander of the Southern Command and the executor of the last war of January 2009 in Gaza. There is no evidence that Galant is more adventurous or militant than Ashekenazi.

Even the controversial foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman—whose domestic and international image and reputation are of a militant war-monger—understands the reality. He told me three years ago that he believed that Israel had missed its opportunity to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities: “We could have done it when President George Bush, Israel’s best friend, was in the White House. He would have sanctioned such an operation.” Recently, during a June 2009 visit to Moscow, Lieberman reiterated his position, saying that “Israel would not bomb Iran, and the problem would have to be dealt with by the international community.”

Israel’s ultimate consideration regarding its vital national security interests has always been and will be the position of the United States. Israel launched its preemptive strike in June 1967 against the Egyptian army only after consultations with Washington. Israel decided not to preempt in October 1973 because its leaders realized that the United States would not support it. Israel raided Lebanon in June 1982 to destroy the PLO once Begin and then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon realized that the U.S. Administration, led by President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, gave it the green light. While it is true that Israel has defied United States before, those incidents happened in cases where Israeli leaders believed that vital American interests were not at stake and that punitive measures would be relatively weak. Examples include the continuing defiance of U.S. policy when it comes to settlements in the occupied West Bank or even the decision to bomb Osirak, after which the Reagan Administration suspended shipments of fighter planes to Israel.

Today the answer to the question of how the United States feels about an Israeli attack on Iran is very clear. Since the beginning of 2010, the Obama Administration has sent numerous officials to visit Netanyahu and convey the clear message that an assault on Iran is against U.S. interests. The list of visiting dignitaries includes CIA Director Leon Panetta; Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee; Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and, most recently, Vice President Joseph Biden.

Kerry said publicly that he “doesn’t believe that Israel would attack Iran soon.” During his short February visit, Mullen, in an unusual step, asked to meet Israel’s defense correspondents to tell them in so many words that a strike against Iran would not be “decisive” in countering Tehran’s nuclear program. “No strike, however effective, will be an end in itself,” Mullen said.


There are several reasons why the United States and the European Union so strongly oppose the execution of a military option. Iran would undoubtedly respond to an attack and would use its ground-to-ground missiles to try to hit U.S. troops and bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. “They can really raise hell for our boys there,” says Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA researcher and Obama adviser.

An attack on Iran may increase instability throughout the Middle East, rally support for Shiite Iran among Sunni Muslims around the globe, and endanger the existence of the pro-Western regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, and Iraq. Iranian officials have made it clear that they would try to halt oil supply from the shores of the Persian Gulf via the narrow, strategically important Strait of Hormuz. “If the Americans make a wrong move toward Iran, the shipment of energy will definitely face danger and the Americans would not be able to protect energy supply in the region,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, warned in a 2006 speech. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil flows through the strait. Mining and sealing the strait, as Iran plans to do in case it is attacked, could cause chaos in the world’s economies and raise oil prices as high as $200 per barrel. This, Iran believes, would be lethal to the health of Western economies.

Visits by U.S. officials also allow the United States to use the threat of Israeli action as a whip against Russia, China, and Iran: The United States is warning Russia and China that Israel will in fact strike if they do not support the draft proposal to toughen sanctions. Even Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, seems to have swallowed the bait, having declared in late February in Geneva, “Israel is a crazy state and can do foolish and crazy things. Hard to know.”

Thus, at the moment, Israel is playing the role of the apparently fearsome and unpredictable neighborhood bully who is actually well aware of his real capabilities; all he wants is to be stopped. Israeli leaders and military strategists still say publicly that “all options are on the table” when asked about a military option. But privately they admit that the military option is not real. What they really wish is that Iran would be dealt with by the international community, by imposing tough and effective sanctions aiming at its energy sector, which is the country’s main source of revenue. A U.S. military strike is deemed a last resort.

However, assuming that maybe in the future the United States reaches the conclusion that sanctions are useless and decides to condone an Israeli attack: Would Israeli leaders have the guts to order such an attack? Is Israel really capable of it? What would Israel’s considerations be?

Israel would have to consider four aspects of an attack: the quality of the intelligence it possesses, its operational capabilities, and the regional and international implications of a strike with Iranian retaliation.

In recent years the quality of the information gathered by Israel on Iranian nuclear capabilities and sites has improved. Israel’s foreign espionage agency, Mossad, and its military intelligence, known as Aman, have increased their infiltration of Iran’s units involved in the nuclear program, which is run mainly by the Revolutionary Guards. More agents have been recruited to provide better information, and coverage of Iran has improved. So has the intelligence cooperation and coordination between the Mossad, the CIA, Britain’s MI6, Germany’s BND, and other friendly security services with access to Iran. Through these channels, the Mossad and its partners have been able to disrupt several significant attempts by Iranian intelligence—in Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, China, Taiwan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan—to purchase equipment vital to its nuclear program.

Some of these joint operations resulted in setting up “front” companies, which gained the trust of Iranian agents seeking to purchase technology, materials, and equipment, sold them genuine goods, and, eventually, damaged ones, thus poisoning Iran’s nuclear installations. Flawed components have hampered Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges in Natanz. Further cooperation includes the sharing of information and analysis and the introduction of preventive and offensive joint operations against Iran’s nuclear program. For example, the CIA and Mossad conspired in the first half of last decade to sabotage the electrical grids near nuclear sites in Iran. The plans didn’t materialize because of logistical and accessibility difficulties.

Together, the Mossad and the CIA have successfully persuaded some Iranian scientists and top officials to defect to the West. Defectors provide insights about the program and the intentions of the leadership. The best source was General Ali Reza Asgari, a senior officer in the Revolutionary Guards and former defense minister, who defected to Turkey in 2007. There have been at least two mysterious assassinations of Iranian scientists whose deaths are attributed to the Mossad. Yet despite its feats and achievements, the Mossad has not fulfilled the promise made by its director, Meir Dagan, to Israeli cabinets since he came to office in 2002. Dagan committed himself to preventing Iran’s nuclear program from materializing. Eight years later, the Mossad has failed to fulfill this commitment. Iran’s program may have been delayed, but it is still on target. In other words, Mossad’s knowledge about the program is fairly good but not complete. Israel realizes that if it wants to stop Iran, its intelligence is insufficient. It will still need to rely mainly on the IAF.

But the IAF has limited capabilities. How will its planes reach Iran without being detected? There are three routes, all of them tricky. The Jordanian and Iraqi corridor is the shortest and is preferred, but requires advance coordination at least with the United States, which controls the Iraqi airspace. The route via Saudi Arabia is the longest and would force the pilots to carry fewer bombs. The Northern route, near Turkey and over Syria—both on good terms with Iran—is the most dangerous, since both states would not tolerate the violation of their space and warn Iran if they discover air movement. But even if the Israeli planners overcome these obstacles and take the risk, the IAF can fly no more than 120 or so fighters and bombers that can run maybe one or two sorties each.

Some U.S. and European strategists have raised the possibility that Israel might use its substantial arsenal of ground-to-ground Jericho missiles instead of its air force. Yet these analysts show no real understanding of Israeli military thinking and capabilities. Israel has never used the Jericho missile, which has never been displayed publicly. Israeli planners and strategists see the missile as a deterrent force and might contemplate its use only as an additional measure to the air force, which has always been and will be Israel’s central strategic weapon. The same argument applies to Israel’s small fleet of submarines, which have a very limited capability to launch missiles. U.S. strategist Anthony Cordesman recently wrote that Israel may consider using nuclear warheads to destroy deeply buried Iranian nuclear facilities. But he didn’t discuss the question of whether there is even the slightest chance that Israel’s leaders would consider ordering the use of nuclear weapons, which the entire world believes and assumes Israel has, for the purpose of an attack. But Israel is developing a large inventory of nuclear weapons only for the purposes of deterrence and defense and perhaps as doomsday weapons—as in Samson’s famous last words, “Let me die with the Philistines”—for a moment when there is a clear and present danger of Israel being destroyed. An Israel that uses nuclear weapons for a preemptive strike would cease to exist as a nation among the nations of the world.

“Frankly,” said General Shafir, the onetime Osirak pilot, “the IAF doesn’t have real strategic capability to bomb distant targets for a prolonged period of time with the required intensity and firepower. To accomplish that there is need for long-range bombers that can carry a heavy load of bombs of the bunker-buster type and the capability to execute what is called carpet bombing,” which means dropping many bombs of up to 40 tons on a single target. Israel already has some heavy bunker-buster bombs acquired recently from the United States. But most military experts in Israel and abroad tend to believe that this capacity will, at best, cause severe damage to some of Iran’s nuclear sites but will not be sufficient to destroy them completely. “Is it worth it to take all these risks just to hold up Iran’s program for one or two years?” asked a senior military officer. No one in Israel dares to mention the likelihood that many pilots may not return from the mission and die in air battles with the weak Iranian air force and its air defenses.

The ramification expressed most vociferously in public by many Israelis is that the price Israeli society may have to pay in the case of any attack would be war. All war games and war simulations conducted by Israeli military and academics take for granted that Iran would retaliate with every force at its disposal. This would include launching long range ground-to-ground Shahab-3 and -4 missiles at Israel’s urban centers, military bases, and strategic sites, including the nuclear reactor in Dimona; the unleashing of Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s missiles against Israel’s northern and southern cities and villages; and, possibly, Syria’s direct participation in the conflict. Simultaneously, it is assumed, Iran would send or activate its sleeper agents to hit Israeli and Jewish targets abroad with acts of terrorism. True, intelligence experts believe that Iran’s ability to inflict heavy damage on Israel is limited, but the Israeli public has a different view: There are growing signs that it fears Iran’s revenge. This fear is magnified by declarations made by Iranian leaders and military generals that Israel would pay a heavy price for an attack. Many Israelis believe Iran’s threats.


There is one more factor. Many Arab countries—including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates—fear nuclear Iran and whisper privately in U.S. ears their hope that Israel could knock Iran down. They fear the Shiite nuclear bomb even more than Israel. They fear that a bomb in Iranian hands would turn the Shiite state into a regional superpower. And yet they would refuse to lend a hand to Israel in public. They would neither allow Israel’s air force to pass over their air space nor support military action.

Therefore, because of the great risks and the low likelihood of an Israeli attack, Israel has to take into consideration that Iran won’t be prevented from obtaining the bomb. Indeed, experts in Israel and the United States argue that the decision to produce the bomb belongs solely to Iran. The U.S. intelligence community sees Iran as approaching having the capability and the means to produce the bomb; the decision to actually have it is then purely political and will be made by the political and clerical echelon. This decision has not been made yet.

But what if the U.S. intelligence analysis is once again wrong, as it was in 2007 when it concluded that Iranians stopped working on weaponization in 2003? What if the Iranian leadership has already made such a decision? Nuclear Iran no doubt would create a new strategic reality in the Middle East. Some Sunnite Arab countries—possibly Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia—would develop bombs of their own to counter Shiite hegemony. Signs point to all the Arab countries already initiating or renewing nuclear programs for civilian purposes. Iran and Pakistan of the 1970s provide living examples of how easy it is to move civilian nuclear programs into the military sphere.

A Middle East with several nations possessing nuclear bombs would be one of the most unstable and volatile regions on earth, much more dangerous than it is now. Most experts believe that even if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, its leadership would not be suicidal enough to use them against Israel or any other nation. Yet a nuclear Iran would have a serious psychological effect on the Israeli populace. Israelis are afraid of living in an uncertain environment where their future and the future of their children are at the mercy of messianic demagogues such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for the destruction of the state of Israel. Fear of a nuclear-armed Iran may itself have an adverse effect on the ability of Israel to maintain the strategic balance in the region.

In short, the dilemma facing Israel and the international community is to bomb or not to bomb. This decision will be crucial to future Israeli governments and far more difficult than that made by Israel’s first prime minister and founding father David Ben Gurion in 1948, when he took it upon himself to declare, against all odds, Israel’s independence. The decision that faces Israel now is not one between good and bad, but between bad and worse.

Yossi Melman, a senior writer on strategic affairs, intelligence, and nuclear issues for Haaretz, is the author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.

Yossi Melman is a longtime reporter on strategic affairs, intelligence, and nuclear issues. He is writing a book about the history of the Israeli intelligence community.

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