Last year’s Israeli airstrike on a Syrian nuclear reactor caught much of the world – including specialists on the issue – off guard. Initial reports that the target of the raid was a nuclear reactor were discounted by incredulous analysts who simply could not believe that Syria had a nuclear weapons program. Their skepticism was reasonable: for years, it had been assumed that Syria would be content with its vast stocks of chemical weapons and short range ballistic missiles to maintain a deterrent capability. Israel’s 1981 airstrike on the Osirak reactor demonstrated its willingness to disarm enemy regimes on their nuclear capabilities, and it was doubted that Syria even believed it had a realistic chance of constructing a covert nuclear reactor. When news of the airstrike finally leaked out, it was widely assumed that the target was more mundane, such as a cache of weapons bound for Hezbollah.
But ultimately, as evidence piled on, it was acknowledged that a nuclear target was the only explanation that made any sense. Last month, the government released a [quite spectacular] presentation assembled by the intelligence communitywhich detailed the Al Kibar reactor project and the North Korean assistance that enabled its construction. The question has now become: what was Syria doing?
The answer is simple: Syria is trying to offset the catastrophic degradation of its conventional military forces. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria relied on the USSR to provide it with the military hardware that allowed it to maintain a huge military, vastly disproportionate with its size as a nation state and its economy. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, this assistance dried up, and the Syrian military has been rotting ever since. A very significant portion of Syria’s deterrent capability was invested in its conventional forces; with these in a state of decay, Syria has concluded that nuclear weapons are a cheaper way to achieve the same deterrent effect. And the Syrian leadership would not hesitate to make this type of decision. Hafez al Assad was known for his pragmatism, ruthlessness, and unceasing drive to increase the power of the state. Even after the Yom Kippur War – when he realized that military victory over Israel was impossible – he refused to negotiate from a position of weakness, and thus, he undertook to build one of the largest militaries in the Middle East. His son Bashar, who currently rules Syria, is not the same man as his father, but his 8 years of leadership have thus far been compatible with the style of his father, in the intent if not the subtlety. Like his father, Assad fears an attack by Israel, the U.S., and other regional states, and he is taking the necessary action to deter such a threat, though he has obviously failed in this regard.
Worrisome though the Syrian program may be, the North Korean connection is even more dangerous. The revelation that North Korea assisted the construction of the Al Kibar reactor means that the worst fears of some proliferation experts have come to pass; North Korea is exporting its nuclear expertise for sale. There can no longer be any doubt that the regime of Kim Jong il is willing to sell nuclear technology to anyone who is willing to pay for it.
Even so, North Korea might not be willing to sell complete warheads. First of all, they have very few to spare, and Kim Jong il probably regards the handful of existing ones as the ultimate guarantors of regime survival. Additionally, he is aware that selling an actual warhead could provoke a military reaction by the United States. Thus, North Korea is selling the art, but not the article. This should be understood as being just as dangerous, if not more so.
The airstrike also demonstrates that Israel remains willing to prevent enemy regimes from acquiring nuclear weapons, and thus, Iran has obviously taken notice. But the Iranian case is vastly different from both Syrian strike and the 1981 Osirak raid. Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is extensive, widely dispersed, and hardened. Iran has deliberately scattered key elements of the nuclear fuel cycle to different sites around the country to reduce the vulnerability of the program. The targets within Iran lie at much greater distances; only a portion of Israel’s air force has the range and refuelling capabilities that are necessary, and the aircraft would be operating at the very limits of their potential range, without the benefits of supporting electronic warfare aircraft or fighter escorts. All of the aircraft in the strike package would be laden with a maximum load of ordnance, and follow up strikes would probably be impossible.
Thus, Israel would only be able to strike at the largest, most important nuclear facilities. Presumably, the principle targets would be the Nuclear Technology Center at Esfahan, the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, and the heavy water reactor under construction at Arak. Individual target points at Natanz and Esfahan may require multiple sorties to ensure destruction, further stressing Israel’s military capabilities. Israel would certainly be able to inflict significant damage to Iran’s nuclear program – perhaps stalling it for 5 years or more – but it would not be able to fatally cripple it. The object of any military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would be to cause enough damage for the Iranian leadership to conclude that the investment necessary to reconstitute the program is prohibitively expensive, and would be better spent elsewhere. Israel simply is not able to inflict this much destruction.
At the same time, however, they may have no choice but to try. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly expressed his wish for the destruction of the Israeli state, and while this is probably little more than bluster and pandering, Israel can little afford the risk. In any case, a nuclear Iran would drastically alter the balance of power in the Middle East to Israel’s disadvantage; Hezbollah, Syria, and other Palestinian terrorist organizations would be emboldened, and an arms race involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt could be precipitated. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary by arms control advocates, the worldwide nonproliferation regime would collapse and a second nuclear age would be upon us. For Israel, the calculation is probably simple: the negative consequences of not attacking exceed those of attacking. Thus, in the absence of U.S. intervention, Israeli leaders may feel that they have no choice, despite the poor military option available to them.
That being the case, why hasn’t Israel attacked yet? After all, Iran is continuing to install centrifuges at Natanz, and as the number of operating centrifuges continues to increase, they become ever closer to a nuclear option. Each day that the centrifuge cascades are running is another day that Iran could be producing highly enriched uranium, gradually accumulating enough fissile material for a nuclear device. What are the Israelis waiting for?
U.S. reservations have thus far held Israel back. In the event of an air strike by either the U.S. or Israel, Iran would have the pretext to retaliate against U.S. assets in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps inciting a general revolt of the Shia population through their proxy, Moqtada Al-Sadr. Iran would probably not cut off its oil exports since it relies on that income for most of its revenue, but military action probably would send oil prices to stratospheric heights. The U.S. position in the Middle East is extremely senstive at this point, and it does not wish to aggravate the situation even further. Thus, Israel has been content to heed U.S. advice and allow the international community to handle the problem. But as time goes by, this policy will become less and less tenable.
Israel is probably waiting for the results of the U.S. election. If McCain is elected, Israel will defer taking unilateral action, confident that its American ally will eventually confront Iran and neutralize the problem. If Obama is elected, however, this will signal that the U.S. does not intend to attack, and that the problem is Israel’s to solve.
Don’t be surprised if you wake one November morning to news of smoke rising over Esfahan.