- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2008




“If Iran continues its plan to develop nuclear weapons, we will attack it. The window of opportunity has closed. The sanctions are not effective.” Whether bluff, bluster, a trial balloon or simply a reflection of Israeli politicking, what makes Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz´s recent statement significant is the pedigree he brings to the declaration as the former well-respected army chief of staff and defense minister.

Still the puffing coupled to Israel’s continuing military exercising begs the question: Does Jerusalem have the capacity to destroy Iran´s advancing nuclear program? Would an attack be wise? What alternative does the Jewish state have? Israel has a well-established record in applying force to halt proliferation. In September 2007, its air force destroyed a suspect Syrian nuclear site.

The strike repeated Jerusalem´s well-chronicled attack on Baghdad´s Osirak reactor 26 years earlier. Despite such success, Iran is not Syria or Iraq. The mullahs have taken pains to disperse their facilities, bunkering some while bolstering anti-aircraft defenses with Russia´s assistance.

To compensate, Israel has boosted its capacity in recent years to attack the three critical components of Iran´s nuclear program, the Isfahan uranium conversion plant along with the commercial Natanz nuclear enrichment facility and the heavy water reactor at Arak both still under construction. It has reconfigured its F-15s and F-16s for deep strikes and new countermeasures to overcome Iranian defenses. The planes have the ability to deliver munitions from standoff distances that exceed nine miles. And should the United States consent to provide F-22 stealth fighter-bombers, Israel´s capacity will increase.

Equally impressive are the American-supplied bunker-buster bombs the aircraft may carry. The 5,000-pound BLU-113 warhead can penetrate at least six meters of reinforced concrete and substantially more when sequenced. Attacks by only a few multiple pairings would assure destruction of the heavily bunkered Natanz plant. Other targets would succumb to the smaller 2,000-pound BLU-109 bombs, which Israel has in plentiful supply.

Were Jerusalem to initiate an attack, it must assume that Tehran would respond in kind by launching a ballistic-missile barrage with surviving forces.

While Israel has upgraded its defenses, there is no certainty they would defeat Iran´s volley. The Dimona weapons reactor would be an obvious target, raising the specter of a radiological release unless operators relocated nuclear materials in advance of the strike. The mullahs´ revenge also could focus on Israel´s population centers. Tehran´s Hezbollah ally could join in. A tit for tat would generate large civilian casualties on all sides.

This grim prospect should promote the search for alternatives.

Unfortunately, Iran remains inured to the carrots and sticks the European Union has pushed to halt the enrichment program. As the revolutionary regime gets closer to a nuclear weapons breakout capacity, Israel may be tempted to unsheath its atomic sword, an arsenal approaching some 200 nuclear weapons. However, such a step to prop up deterrence or intimidate may exacerbate tensions prompting the mullahs to drop their nuclear pretenses, bolt from the nonproliferation treaty and accelerate bomb making efforts. The end result may encourage Arab states to reconsider nuclear abstinence.

A better course would call for North Atlantic Treaty Organization to step up and admit Israel into membership. As NATO expanded its international reach beyond the European theater in recent years, Israel´s association has become a matter of discussion in Brussels. In 2006, the first tentative step took place when Jerusalem and the alliance entered into a formal framework to cooperate in 27 areas, including intelligence sharing, WMD and civilian emergency preparedness. But this is not enough to deal with the current challenge.

Israel´s integration into NATO, possibly with a separate American security guarantee, would provide Israel with the defense in depth it has yearned for. By placing Iran in the alliance´s crosshairs, the deterrent impact would reduce the risk of an Israeli-Iranian war along with serious collateral damage to global oil markets and, arguably, force Tehran to think twice about the benefits of crossing the nuclear-weapons threshold. Equally important, Israel´s enhanced security would cushion the painful territorial concessions Jerusalem will have to make to break the impasse with the Palestinians and Syrians. In the interim, a codicil to membership would assure NATO did not embroil itself in ongoing Israeli-Palestinian reciprocal attacks.

Seen this way, Iran´s threat to Israel can serve to midwife a future that will make the Middle East more stable. The time to seize the opportunity is now.

Bennett Ramberg, who served in the State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs during the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of three books in international security.

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