President George W Bush backs Israeli plan for
strike on Iran - The Sunday Times - July 13, 2008 - by Uzi Mahnaimi
President George W Bush has
told the Israeli government that he may be prepared to approve a future
military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if negotiations with
Tehran break down, according to a senior Pentagon official.
Despite the opposition of his own
generals and widespread scepticism
that America is ready to risk the military, political and economic
consequences of an airborne strike on Iran, the president has given an
“amber light” to an Israeli plan to attack Iran’s main nuclear sites
with long-range bombing sorties, the official told The Sunday Times.
“Amber means get on with your preparations, stand by for
attack and tell us when you’re ready,” the official said. But the
Israelis have also been told that they can expect no help from American
forces and will not be able to use US military bases in Iraq for
Nor is it certain that Bush’s amber light would ever turn to
without irrefutable evidence of lethal Iranian hostility. Tehran’s test
launches of medium-range ballistic missiles last week were seen in
Washington as provocative and poorly judged, but both the Pentagon and
the CIA concluded that they did not represent an immediate threat of
attack against Israeli or US targets.
“It’s really all down to the
Israelis,” the Pentagon official added.
“This administration will not attack Iran. This has already been
decided. But the president is really preoccupied with the nuclear
threat against Israel and I know he doesn’t believe that anything but
force will deter Iran.”
The official added that Israel had not so far presented Bush
convincing military proposal. “If there is no solid plan, the amber
will never turn to green,” he said.
There was also resistance inside the Pentagon from officers
concerned about Iranian retaliation. “The uniform people are opposed to
the attack plans, mainly because they think it will endanger our
soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the source said.
Complicating the calculations in both Washington and
Tel Aviv is the
prospect of an incoming Democratic president who has already made it
clear that he prefers negotiation to the use of force.
Senator Barack Obama’s previous opposition to the war in
his apparent doubts about the urgency of the Iranian threat, have
intensified pressure on the Israeli hawks to act before November’s US
presidential election. “If I were an Israeli I wouldn’t wait,” the
Pentagon official added.
The latest round of regional tension was sparked by the
Revolutionary Guard, which fired nine long and medium-range missiles in
war game manoeuvres in the Gulf last Wednesday.
Iran’s state-run media reported
that one of them was a modified
Shahab-3 ballistic missile, which has a claimed range of 1,250 miles
and could theoretically deliver a one-ton nuclear warhead over Israeli
cities. Tel Aviv is about 650 miles from western Iran.
Salami, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, boasted that “our hands
are always on the trigger and our missiles are ready for launch”.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said she saw
launches as “evidence that the missile threat is not an imaginary one”,
although the impact of the Iranian stunt was diminished on Thursday
when it became clear that a photograph purporting to show the missiles
being launched had been faked.
The one thing that all sides agree on is that any strike by
Iran or Israel would trigger a catastrophic round of retaliation that
would rock global oil markets, send the price of petrol soaring and
wreck the progress of the US military effort in Iraq.
Abdalla Salem El-Badri,
secretary-general of Opec, the oil
producers’ consortium, said last week that a military conflict
involving Iran would see an “unlimited” rise in prices because any loss
of Iranian production — or constriction of shipments through the Strait
of Hormuz — could not be replaced. Iran is Opec’s second-largest
producer after Saudi Arabia.
Equally worrying for Bush would be the impact on the US
Iraq, which after years of turmoil has seen gains from the military
“surge” of the past few months, and on American operations in the wider
region. A senior Iranian official said yesterday that Iran would
destroy Israel and 32 American military bases in the Middle East in
response to any attack.
Yet US officials acknowledge that no American president can
to remain idle if Israel is threatened. How genuine the Iranian threat
is was the subject of intense debate last week, with some analysts
arguing that Iran might have a useable nuclear weapon by next spring
and others convinced that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is engaged in a
dangerous game of bluffing — mainly to impress a domestic Iranian
audience that is struggling with economic setbacks and beginning to
question his leadership.
Among the sceptics is Kenneth Katzman, a former CIA analyst
author of a book on the Revolutionary Guard. “I don’t subscribe to the
view that Iran is in a position to inflict devastating damage on
anyone,” said Katzman, who is best known for warning shortly before
9/11 that terrorists were planning to attack America.
“The Revolutionary Guards have always
underperformed militarily,” he
said. “Their equipment is quite inaccurate if
not outright inoperable.
Those missile launches were more like putting up a ‘beware of the dog’
sign. They want everyone to think that if you mess with them, you will
A former adviser to Rice noted that Ahmadinejad’s
attitude had earned him powerful enemies among Iran’s religious
leadership. Professor Shai Feldman, director of Middle East studies at
Brandeis University, said the Iranian government was getting
“clobbered” because of global economic strains. “His
failed policies have made Iran more vulnerable to sanctions and people
close to the mullahs have decided he’s a liability,” he said.
In Israel, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, has his own
problems with a corruption scandal that threatens to unseat him and the
media have been rife with speculation that he might order an attack on
Iran to distract attention from his difficulties. According to one of
his closest friends, Olmert recently warned him that “in three months’
time it will be a different Middle East”.
Yet even the most hawkish
officials acknowledge that Israel would
face what would arguably be the most challenging military mission of
its 60-year existence.
“No one here is talking
about more than delaying the [nuclear]
programme,” said the Pentagon source. He added
that Israel would need
to set back the Iranians by at least five years for an attack to be
considered a success.
Even that may be beyond Israel’s competence if it has
to act alone.
Obvious targets would include Iran’s Isfahan
plant, where uranium ore
is converted into gas, the Natanz complex where this gas is used to
enrich uranium in centrifuges and the plutonium-producing Arak heavy
water plant. But Iran is known to have scattered other elements of its
nuclear programme in underground facilities around the country. Neither
US nor Israeli intelligence is certain that it knows where everything
“Maybe the Israelis could start off
the attack and have us finish it
off,” Katzman added. “And maybe that has been their intention
along. But in terms of the long-term military
campaign that would be
needed to permanently suppress Iran’s nuclear programme, only the US is
perceived as having that capability right now.”
Additional reporting: Tony Allen-Mills in New York
Target Iran - Air Strikes
In May 2003, Ephraim Asculai, a former Israeli Atomic
Comission official, in an article written for the Jaffee Center for
Strategic Studies, wrote that "nuclear verification is clearly failing
in Iran, when (the IAEA) let Iran proceed with its ambitious program.
In any case, it would be unable to deter or stop its development of
nuclear weapons. The verification mechanisms will fail by not being
able to prove anything, since intentions, particularly when based on
legal actions, are unverifiable."
The annual intelligence assessment presented to Israel's
Knesset on 21 July 2004 noted that
Iran's nuclear program is the
biggest threat facing Israel, "Maariv" and "Yediot Aharonot" reported
on 22 July 2004. Some Likud and Labor
Knesset members subsequently
called for a preemptive strike against the Iranian nuclear facility.
Former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh (Labor) said, "If the
international community's helplessness in the face of the Iranian
threat persists, Israel will have to weigh its steps -- and soon." Ehud
Yatom (Likud) said, "The Iranian nuclear facilities must be destroyed,
just as we did the Iraqi reactor. We must strive to attain the ability
to damage and destroy any nuclear capability that might be directed
against Israel." On 08 September 2004
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon said the international community has not done enough to stop
Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and warns that Israel will take
its own measures to defend itself. He also said Iranian officials have
made it clear they seek the destruction of the Jewish state. Israeli
Air Force pilots have been practicing attacks on a scale model of the
Bushehr reactor in the Negev Desert.
In October 2004 Ephraim Kam, the deputy head of the Jaffee
Center for Strategic Studies said that "It would be a
operation. In order to undermine or disrupt the Iranian nuclear
program, you would have to strike at least three or four sites ...
Otherwise the damage would be too limited, and it would not postpone
the program by more than a year or two, and this could in the end be
worse than doing nothing." Shai Feldman, also at the Jaffee
said "There is a logic to operating against Iran even if the
of every facility is not known, because just
taking out the facilities
that are known, especially if they include the enrichment and heavy
water plants, would in itself create a serious degradation of the
Israeli Air Force received the first two of 25 F-15I [officially
for Israel, not Iran, though some take a different view] Ra’am
(Thunder) aircraft, the Israeli version of the F-15E Strike Eagle, in
January 1998, and as of early 2004 had an inventory of 25 aircraft.
According to the Israeli Air Force, this aircraft has a range
of 4,450 km, which equates to a combat radius of 2,225 km.
Deliveries of the F-16I Sufa (Storm) began in early 2004. This heavily
modified aircraft, with massive conformal fuel
tanks, has a reported combat
radius of 2,100 km. Probable strike targets such as Bushehr and
Esfahan lie about 1,500 km from Israel.
The 2,060-km strike on the Palestine Liberation
headquarters in Tunis in October 1985, in retaliation for the murder of
three Israelis on a yacht in Cyprus, was the IAF's furthest attack from
home to date. The F-16s which bombed the Iraqi reactor in 1981 were not
refueled and returned home on their last drops of fuel.
On 21 September 2004 Israel acknowledged that it
500 BLU-109 bunker-buster bombs, which could be
used to destroy Iran's
nuclear facilities. The bombs, which can penetrate more than 7 feet of
reinforced concrete, are part of a $319 million package of air-launched
bombs being sold to Israel under America's military aid program. (NOTE: Nuclear
Bunker Buster (RNEP) Video
The German magazine Der Spiegel reported in October
2004 that Israel had completed plans for a pre-emptive strike against
Iran's nuclear facilities. Der Spiegela special unit of the
Mossad had received order in July
2004 to prepare a detailed plan, which had been delivered to the
Israeli Air Force. The source for the report, an IAF pilot, said
plan to take out Iran's nuclear sites was "complex, yet manageable."
Israel's plan assumes that Iran has six
reported that all
would be attacked simultaneously.
It would be difficult for Israel to strike at Iran without
American knowledge, since the mission would have to be flown through
American [formerly Iraqi] air space. Even if the United
States did not
actively participate with operations inside Iranian air space,
would be a passive participant by virtue of allowing Israeli aircraft
unhindered passage. In the eyes of the world, it would
to be a joint US-Israeli enterprise, any denials notwithstanding.
Indeed, it is quite probable that Iran would not be able to
determine the ultimate origins of the strike, given Iran's relatively
modest air defense capabilities.
Thus, even if the strike were entirely
of American origin, Israel would be implicated. When asked
2004 about Israeli threats to attack Iran, Bush's national security
adviser Condoleezza Rice, declined to say whether the United States
would support such action by Israel.
In an 08 September 2004 interview in the "Jerusalem Post"
newspaper, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the international
community has not done enough to stop Iran from developing a nuclear
weapon and warns that Israel will take its own measures to defend
itself. Sharon said there was no doubt that Iran is trying to obtain
nuclear weapons and is doing so by "deception and subterfuge." He said
international efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions had not been
sufficient. Sharon calls for increased pressure and supervision of
Iran's nuclear program and said the issue should be brought before the
UN Security Council for sanctions to be levied against Tehran. Sharon
said Israel would take steps to defend itself against the Iranian
threat. He did not elaborate.
Even though the uranium facility at Natanz has been buried
underground, it remains vulnerable. As Lieutenant Colonel
Eric M. Sepp
noted, "The "cut-and-cover" facilities are constructed by
hole, inserting a facility, and then covering it up with dirt and
rocks. These cut-and-cover facilities can be
just below the surface of
the ground or may reach a depth of perhaps 100 feet, and represent
vast majority of underground facilities today. In the case of
contemporary cut-and-cover facilities, there is no question that
conventional munitions can defeat them."
The air strikes option does have the same problems that
would face in North Korea, namely that Iran has a rather significant
air defense capability which could complicate use plans. However,
unlike North Korea, Iran is not in a position to hold US soldiers or
allied civilian populations (Iraq) hostage. A full-scale Iranian
military retaliation, though possible, is highly unlikely, especially
with the significant US force presence in Iraq. It is possible that
Iran could use its ballistic missiles to strike US or allied targets
throughout the Persian Gulf region, and in fact Iranian officials have
explicitly promised to do just that.