11 February 2012

The Explainer: Will Israel attack Iran?

In the early years of the last decade, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shocked the world when it uncovered Iran’s clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons programme. However, the IAEA exposé merely confirmed the worst fears of the international community that was all along merely suspecting such a possibility.
Today, the European Union, the United States, and Israel are convinced that Iran’s is out to develop nuclear weapons. The international community, including India, has made it amply clear that it does not want a nuclear Iran. The usually restrained Government of India has clearly stated that it does not want another nuclear power in the neighbourhood.
As was expected, Iran denied the accusations listed in the IAEA report and has maintained that its nuclear programme is for civil energy generation. Tehran maintains that it has no interest in nuclear weapons, but that as a member of the NPT it has an inalienable right to peaceful nuclear energy. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, critical parts of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure “include a VVER-1000 MWe light water reactor at Bushehr, a uranium conversion facility at Esfahan, an enrichment facility at Natanz, a heavy water production plant, and a heavy water reactor at Arak”.

The United States has imposed oil embargo against Iran, under which any country/entity which does trade with Iran’s central bank (most of the revenue transactions for energy sales by Iran are handled by its central bank) for purchase of its energy resources will face serious penalties in the United States. 

The EU has also boycotted purchase of oil and gas from Iran, which will take six months for full implementation. It is believed that if these sanctions are fully carried out, they could help isolate Iran’s central bank and effectively choke off the sale of Iranian oil by obstructing the means of payment, which in turn will force Iran to abandon its nuke weapons programme.
The new U.S.-EU oil embargo is in addition to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations. The UN sanctions prevent all members and international financial institutions from entering into new commitments for grants, financial assistance, and concessional loans, to  Iran, except for humanitarian and developmental purposes. Exports of arms from Iran have also been banned and member states are told to exercise restraint in selling major arms systems to Iran.
Impact of Sanctions
The current international sanctions and conflict with the West could push Iran deeper into an economic morass, which it can ill-afford. In fact, not only will such a conflict stop the flow of any foreign investment into the country, it could also lead to a flight of capital from the country. In fact, the sanctions are already having a debilitating impact on the Iranian economy. It defaulted on payment for about 200,000 tonnes of rice from India. India is considering not exporting any more rice to Iran on credit, as suppliers such as those in Thailand, Vietnam and Pakistan had already stopped doing so.
Why not military action?
If there is any one thing that’s discouraging the U.S. and other major powers from taking military action against Iran, it is oil. Iran has more than 9 per cent of the world’s oil and gas reserves. It has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz through which nearly one-third of global oil supply passes every day. Any major disruption in global oil supply could lead to a serious spike in the cost of oil. Even if we discount the current global slowdown, a rise in the cost of oil (because of the fear of disruption in supply) could jeopardize any chance of a quicker recovery of the world economy.

War by covert means?
Apart from direct military intervention, it is widely speculated that the U.S. and Israel have launched a phantom cyber war to scuttle Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. 

In January 2011, The New York Times published an article on the Stu
xnet virus, which is believed to have been a joint American-Israeli project to sabotage the Iranian nuke programme. The Stuxnet is believed to be the most sophisticated cyber-weapon ever deployed. The computer worm has set reportedly wreaked technological havoc on the Iranian nuke programme; in fact, the U.S. and Israeli intelligence establishments believe that because of the worm, Iran has already run into technological difficulties that could delay a bomb until 2015.

It is also believed that Israel, in preparation for the air attack, already has special forces in place in Iran. Also, it is likely that they were behind the killing of five key Iranian scientists (all related to the nuke programme) over the last two years. 

What are the plausible air routes that Israel could use to attack Iran?
In the light of the geographical location of Israel and Iran and the geopolitical reality of the region, there are three plausible air routes that Israeli air force may use to attack Iran.

Jordan-Iraq Route.
The most ‘comfortable’ route for Israeli aircraft to attack Iran will be through Jordanian and Iraqi airspace. Jordan, which is pro-West and not comfortable with the idea of a nuclear Iran, in unlikely to react in any major way. Iraq lacks any major air disruptive capability. In other words, Iraq, after the U.S. withdrawal, lacks the military infrastructure to stop Israel from using its airspace to attack Iran. However, a Shia-dominated Iraqi government, which is close to Iran, has already warned Israel to avoid violating its airspace, which may make flying through Iraqi airspace difficult.

Turkey-Syria northern route.
Initially when Israel was planning for the attack on Iran, one potential route they considered was the northern route: flying through the Mediterranean Sea (along Lebanese and Syrian coasts) and then close to the Turkey-Syria international border. Now let us look at why this will not work:

(a) Syria is a sworn enemy of Israel; it, along with Iran, supports the Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are anti-Israel. Also, Israel had occupied the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War.

(b) Till a few years ago, Turkey was one of the very few allies Israel had in the Muslim World. However, deteriorating bilateral relations (because of a host of reasons like the botched Israeli raid on a Turkish aid ship, destined for the Gaza Strip) have put the Turkey-Israel bonhomie in cold storage.

In the light of these facts, the northern route will not work for the Israeli military operation against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Jordan-Saudi Arabia route.
The third and most plausible route would be through the Jordan-Saudi Arabia air corridor. This would call for flying through Jordan and entering Saudi airspace.

Why this route may work? Saudi Arabia is Sunni while Iran is the world's largest Shia republic. For decades now, Iran has been challenging the Saudi hegemony in the Islamic World. Iran's rising power ambitions threaten Saudi Arabia's leadership of the Islamic World at large and the Arab World in particular. In short, Saudi Arabia is an ideological, sectarian, and power rival.

Established as a Jewish State in 1948, Israel is the first theocratic State in the post-Second World War world. Judaism (the religion of the Jews) and Islam have been at loggerheads for centuries. 

Also, Israel is an undeclared nuke weapons power; in this regard, Israel follows an 'ncnd' policy, i.e., it neither confirms nor denies its nuke status. Its nuke weapons make it the only nuke weapons state in the Middle East.

Ever since the Islamists brought in an Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has called for the destruction of Israel. It is in this context that reports of Israel’s planned strikes against Iranian nuke plants should be understood. Israel believes that Iran, in a moment of sheer desperation, may launch a nuclear weapons attack against it.

In this regard, in highly secretive meetings, it is learnt that Saudi Arabia has given permission to Israel to use its northern air corridor for
flyover to strike at Iran’s secretive nuclear plants. 

The U.S. is not in favour of an Israeli air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. It believes that an air strike may achieve limited gains, as most of the Iranian nuclear facilities are located in secret underground bunkers. Also, any attack against Iran may rally Islamists and liberals in the Muslim World against not just Israel but also the U.S., which many see as the Jewish State’s principal backer. Such attacks also raises the dangerous possibility of attacks against U.S. citizens in various parts of the world.

In other words, the U.S. believes that an Israeli air strike against Iran may turn out to be a massive strategic miscalculation, riddled with consequences that have the potential to disrupt global economic recovery and big power status. 

(Picture sourced from here.)


Anonymous said...

the way in which its written, i.e. the question answer style makes it much easier to understand than the long drawn paragraphs ... brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Whaw. Very lucid and comprehensive! Keep up the good work! :)

Rohith castelino said...

Wonderful,I am greatful to BJ for this excellent article

Raheel Anwar said...

With every article I read, I realize how much I'm missing on.. You're doing a wonderful job. I feel empowered after reading this. Thanks!!

misha said...

really awesome....everything is clear to me now.....m so thankful to u...keep it up!!:-))

Naresh said...

There is a cold war bewteen Israel and Iran...but if that leads to the nucelar war I think the objectivity of forming the UNO will be lost. if the war happens they will set up bad example for the future and many other countries, for example CHINA may take advantage of the war and try to emerge as worlds powerful country and aslo try to dominate other nations.However happening of this war is may...or may not...but then before any drastic step is taken I think UN should cosider this issue with serious and come out with dplomatic solution.

shereen said...

Had few doubts related to the topic..which got cleared after reading the article...The article indeed is well written and well explained :)

vinay said...

I have one doubt sir.. Jordon is an enemy of Israel..so how can it manage to fly above it if it has to take the third route?

Bharat C. Jain said...

Vinay, I have written that Jordan is pro-West (read pro-U.S.) and has a healthy relationship with Israel; hence it will look the other way if Israel takes the aerial route over its territory.

Anonymous said...

Excellent,to the point article sir.Thank you for providing a simple view of a highly complex state in the middle east.

Anonymous said...

Despite denying the possibility to acquire nuclear weapons, Iran is accelerating its nuclear program to arm its missiles with nuclear weapons. For those who really believe that these nukes are meant for Israel, there is reason to believe that these weapons would be used to threaten and intimidate all the Sunni countries in the region. The Iranian know better than that, they would not even dare threaten Israel or attack it with nuclear weapons. They could litteraly be wiped off the map if they try something like that. However, if their evil ambitions are not checked, world order and peace would be threatened. Now that the Syrian rebels have been defanging Bashar Assad through attacking the ill-defended SAM sites in northern Syrian territories, they may unknowingly be opening a corridor for the IAF to use in a future potential strike against Iranian targets.