One of the most difficult issues American policy-makers will face this year is how to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel’s destruction have focused attention on Tehran’s threat to the Jewish state, a nuclear-armed Iran is not just a danger to Israel: It is a threat to American security interests.
It would endanger stability in the Persian Gulf, location of the world’s largest oil reserves. A nuclear-armed Iran, run by violent Islamists, and armed with billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues and missiles that can reach Europe, would have the capability (along with its ally, Syria) to expand its support for Iraq’s terrorist insurgency, to blackmail Russia by aiding jihadists in Chechnya and to step up its support of Hezbollah, a terrorist organization with a worldwide reach — with minimal fear of retaliation. All of this would be highly damaging to American interests and international stability.
But Israel, because of its history as a target of Iranian-backed terrorism and the regime’s constant calls for its destruction, is the country most directly threatened by an Iranian nuclear-weapons program. Iran has Shahab-3 ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel. Last month, Israeli director of military intelligence Aharon Ze’evi Farkash reported that Iran has also acquired Russian cruise missiles capable of hitting Israel with a nuclear weapon.
In January 2003, Project Daniel, a study group comprised of Israeli and American defense experts, delivered a report to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the threat to Israel from weapons of mass destruction programs run by Arab/Islamic countries. The report makes the case that Israel must be prepared to take pre-emptive action against an enemy armed with WMD.
The chairman of Project Daniel, Purdue University professor Louis Rene Beres, explained some of the effects of even a “small” nuclear-weapons attack. “Retinal burns would occur in the eyes of persons as far as several hundred miles from the explosions. Israelis would be crushed by collapsing buildings and torn to shreds by flying glass. Others would fall victim to raging firestorms,” he wrote. Emergency police and fire systems would be decimated, hundreds of thousands of people would be driven from their homes and water supplies would become unusable.
“With the passage of time, many of the survivors would expect an increased incidence of serious degenerative diseases and various forms of cancer,” Mr. Beres added. Moreover, uncontrolled waste and untreated sewage would generate millions of flies and mosquitos, which “would make it impossible to control typhus, malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis. Throughout Israel, the largest health threat would be posed by the tens or even hundreds of thousands of rotting human corpses.”
It may well be that Washington is working behind the scenes on some kind of plan for military action against Iran’s nuclear program — with or without coordinating it with Israel. But from outward appearances, it appears as if Washington has decided for now to continue working on the diplomatic track with the European Union — something that has yet to bear fruit. As a result , Israeli strategists have begun talking much more openly about the possibility of Israel acting against Iran on its own — even as Mr. Sharon continues to emphasize that Israel wants to resolve the problem diplomatically.
But once Israel concludes that diplomacy cannot deter an Iranian nuclear attack, it has two major options: The first is to absorb a catastrophic first strike and retaliate with nuclear weapons hidden on Dolphin-class submarines.
The second is to launch a pre-emptive attack with the aim of destroying as much of Iran’s nuclear-weapons infrastructure as possible. One prominent advocate of the latter course of action is Professor Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. While it would be preferable from a military standpoint to have the United States carry out such a military operation, according to Mr. Inbar, Israel is capable of taking action on its own. He believes that even if Israeli forces were only partially successful in destroying the Iranian facilities, they could “cripple” Tehran’s capability to build a nuclear bomb in the near future.
Mr. Inbar’s view is shared by Shai Feldman, head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a moderately dovish think tank, who says that “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 Iranian potential.”