What Israel’s War Against Iran Would Look Like

For months, there have been rumors of a strike by Israel on Iran's nuclear facilities. The propaganda build-up is very similar to that directed against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2002. In both cases, an isolated state with limited military and physical resources is depicted as a horror that threatens to end the survival of the world, except, of course, that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) didn't exist.

According to several respected US analysts on the Middle East, such as Vince Cannistraro, former CIA head of counterterrorism, and Judith Yaphe of National Defense University, the message emanating from Israel and its right-wing US supporters is that the road to Jerusalem and an Arab-Israeli peace leads through Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contends that since Iran's support of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon means permanent hostility to Israel's existence, the only way to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is to use brute force to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear capability. Israel's right wing incessantly depicts a nuclear Iran as the seat of the world's evil, and calls during the last few weeks for a joint US-Israel strike against Iran have reached a crescendo of frantic anxiety.

Israel's rationale for a strike is solidly rooted in its past. Avner Cohen, a first-rate analyst of Israel's nuclear and defense programs, wrote in a recent article [1] that the day after the bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981, then-prime minister Menachem Begin exclaimed that the Osirak attack meant installing a new strategic doctrine that said that “Israel would do its utmost, including risking starting a war, in order to prevent hostile states in the region from obtaining nuclear arms.” Behind this statement lurked Begin's fear of a new Holocaust of Israel's Jews.

Israel adopted the so-called Osirak doctrine, as if “it were holy writ,” said Cohen. But what the Israeli public in 1981 did not know was that throughout the operation, Begin hadn't correctly understood his own intelligence; plus, top Israeli security officials – including the heads of army intelligence, the Mossad and the director general of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) – had vociferously opposed the attack. The obdurate Begin launched it anyway.

In the past, the United States had led in confronting Iran. For years, the United States Air Force has had “Project Checkmate,” a secret, strategic planning group tasked with running detailed contingency scenarios for a possible massive, three-day US attack on Iran. It is part of US Central Command (CENTCOM) and consists of 20 to 30 top air force officers and defense and cyber experts with ready access to the White House, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and other government agencies.

Time changed the United States' leadership in confrontations with Iran. During the past few years, it was Israel that increasingly sought to launch a preemptive strike on Tehran, with the United States assigned a subsidiary role. According to one former senior US military official with personal knowledge, all through the late spring and the summer of 2011, “Israel wanted to start something and drag us in.”

This correspondent first heard of the threats of a preemptive Israeli strike as early as last May, when Department of Defense (DoD) officials told me of classified DoD drills being conducted in support of an Israeli attack on Iran. All summer long, the drills continued – supervised by teams of senior former and serving CIA and DIA officials who were personally opposed to any such attack.

Last spring, then-secretary of defense Robert Gates, who had a fixed and determined will, resisted the very idea of such an attack. In August, after Gates retired, there were leaked rumors that Israel would attack after Adm. Mike Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired in September. The attack was aimed at foiling the Palestinians' bid to get some form of statehood from the United Nations (UN) General Assembly.

After Mullen stepped down, President Obama sent the new Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, to Israel to argue that an attack would not succeed in its aims, and to attempt to get a commitment from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu not to strike Iran without warning. According to US military and intelligence sources, Panetta failed to get that pledge.

And Israeli intimidation attempts kept on. Within the last two months, numerous accounts portraying Israel's military capability as invincible have appeared. Only last month, Israel fired its new long-range Jericho III missile (a weapon capable of being launched from a submarine) able to hit Iran, and its air force conducted a joint exercise with the Italian Air Force over Sardinia, covering an area of 800 kilometers, making clear that Israel could conduct a deadly, long-range strike. A recent article by Daily Beast correspondent Eli Lake [2] reported that Israel's new cyber weapons would be able to pierce and disable Iran's air defense forces, disrupt Iran's electrical grid, jam the frequencies of responders and collapse its software networks. Comedian George Carlin once called these kind of activities “prick waving.”

The boasts of Tel Aviv's invincibility prompted Prof. Paul D. Williams of the National Defense University to comment to me, “The Israelis are not invincible. Pride goes before the fall.”

Could Israel Do It?

According to former US military or intelligence sources, the war would begin without warning. Israel would fall silent, as it did before the Osirak strike in 1981. The attack would utilize three Israeli strike units: its aircraft, its missiles and cruise missiles launched from its three diesel subs. However, the most important strategic element would be Israel's Air Force.

In the words of a former US Middle East expert and intelligence official, an account verified with others, the most highly regarded scenario would involve a strike package of 70 to 80 aircraft that would fly up to the corner of the Mediterranean, adjoining northern Syria and southeastern Turkey. There, the strike planes would top off, then fly east over southern Turkey, infuriating the Turks, who nonetheless probably would not hoot the planes down. After hitting their targets in Iran and realizing that hostile Turks would now be in the air, the Israeli planes would be in peril. With the need for fuel becoming more acute with each passing minute, Israel's aircraft “would barrel straight through Iraqi and Jordanian airspace in a direct line for home.”

Thanks to US pressure, the Iraqis would not engage the aircraft either, and Jordan, much as it did back in June 1981 during the Osirak operation, would scramble its air force belatedly and without any real desire to engage, fearing that an encounter could result in the country losing most of its air force.

What Would Iran's Reaction Be?

The 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War (called the Second Lebanon War in Israel) was an attempt by Israel at eliminating the mutually assured destruction (MAD) counterforce in Lebanon. It was an attempt that failed. According to Lord Elgin, a British weapons consultant for British Aerospace, Iran had purchased and supplied to Hezbollah a large number of very nasty, relatively low-cost Russian AT-14 Kornet solid fuel anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), and the Iranian-trained Hezbollah commandos dug in massive numbers of these in concrete bunkers and firing positions.

According to a former high-ranking DoD official, after over 50 underpowered and lightly armored Merkava main battle tanks were hit, and after Israel's American-made warplanes and pinpoint weapons proved ineffective, failure stared Tel Aviv in the face. Either Israel had to use neutron bombs and deploy a large number of Israeli soldiers to remove the Hezbollah threat, or it could declare peace. Israel declared peace.

In the case of an attack on Iran, Israel has a vast array of weapons, including neutron bombs, nuclear weapons and fuel-air explosive (FAE) bombs. But if Israel used an FAE weapon in an attack, Iran and its allies in Lebanon would fire thousands upon thousands of scud missiles armed with high explosive (HE) warheads “at every Israeli population center down as far as Tel Aviv,” according to one former DoD intelligence official.

The Syrians, using larger and more actively guided missiles, could shower Israel with high explosive warheads (or even WMD payloads) while Israel would attempt to use its Green Pine radar system, and a combination of US and Israeli anti-missile missiles, to shoot down these salvos. Former CIA and DoD analysts told this reporter that Israel, in the beginning, would have good success in knocking down many incoming missiles, but the sheer number of incoming missiles would “totally overload all and any defensive measures.”

A former US intelligence official with direct knowledge of Israel's attack plans emphasized: “The Israelis have no defense against this. Israel has a massive disincentive against the use of any kind of nuclear weapon. Israel has only two population centers, and this attack would finish them.”

The last part of the statement deserves notice. According to commentators like Rand Corporation war-gamers Austin Long and Anshel Pfeffer, an attack by Israel on Iran would succeed. “The Israeli Air Force has conducted training missions with simulated operations as far as Gibraltar at the western edge of the Mediterranean, which indicates it could effectively organize a very large long-range strike.”

Former US military officials directly contradicted this. First, in the words of one of these officials, the Israeli-Italian Air Force joint mission covered “very small distances.” These same sources conclude that Israel's strike against Iran would not be “crushingly decisive” chiefly because the bulk of Israel's Air Force could not participate, mainly, in the words of another analyst, because of “limitations relating to certain types of aircraft trawling long distances and Israel's limited aerial tanker capacity.”

A former senior DoD official with firsthand knowledge of Israel's attack plains said that Pfeffer's estimate “ignores all the space-time considerations, Iranian air defense, Israel's fuel limitation, etcetera.” Another former CIA official said, “Israel would have huge losses from fuel starvation.”

There appear to be three major targets in Israel's strike plan: the uranium conversion facility at Esfahan, the fuel-enrichment plant at Natanz, and the heavy-water production plant and heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak. Even if Israel's Air Force reached those targets, their position deep underground would make them hard to hit. “It would take thousands of sorties,” said a former senior Pentagon official. And given the range, the Israeli planes couldn't stay at the area for very long. “The Israelis have no idea of the scale and complexity of this kind of operation,” said a former senior US intelligence official.


American resistance to any Israeli strike spiked recently when two senior US military leaders bridled at the scheme. Only a few days ago, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, and CENTCOM chief Gen. James Mattis (who commanded the battle of Fallujah in 2004) told President Obama about his seeming lack of firmness in letting Netanyahu know the “lay of the land” – how deeply the US military was opposed to a strike by Tel Aviv. The president's reply was not what the generals expected. Two US officials close to the exchange say that Obama said that he “had no say over Israel” because “it is a sovereign country.”

One can understand the generals' bluntness and anxiety. Any strike by Israel would place all US military personnel and assets spread throughout the Persian Gulf in peril. The Persian Gulf is the keystone of the world oil market, and any instability could weaken the already faltering world economy. US assets in the region are immense. The US Sixth Fleet polices the Mediterranean, keeping a keen eye on Syria using bases in Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Turkey. The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981 set up a whole string of support bases that serve CENTCOM, including facilities for transit, refueling, resupply of naval forces, maintenance of equipment, storage of fuel and supplies, and communication links. One of the most important of these bases is Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

The Fifth Fleet is stationed at Bahrain, but US forces are also in Saudi Arabia and Oman, and in other GCC countries like Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – which bought US weapons costing $22 billion from 2005 to 2009. The Saudis alone have a current deal for $60 billion pending.

A surprise attack by Israel would put all these assets in peril, and Gens. Dempsey and Mattis warned Obama that it would take 45 to 90 days to ramp up a force to defend the region if Israel attacks.

Even in Israel, the Begin doctrine no longer holds dominion. The debate for and against an Iran war has turned into a catfight “alive and spitting, sharp in tooth and claw,” as a poet said. The country's intelligence officials, like ours, are dead-set against any war. The former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, who made headlines last January when he resigned after calling any preemptive strike by Israel “insane,” added that he would do anything in his power to prevent an attack.

Panetta, addressing the Brookings Institution on December 2, 2011, took a stance clearly opposing Netanyahu's own position on the Iranian nuclear issue, pressing Israeli leaders to do more to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, saying three or four times,”Just get to the damned table,” referring to Netanyahu's refusal to pursue further negotiations.

While underscoring the threat a nuclear Iran poses, Panetta said that diplomacy – not force – was the way to counter Tehran. He also praised Dagan for his refusal to use force on Iran, and added that a close ally, like Israel, “has responsibilities.”

“It must take into account American interests,” continued Panetta, adding that, “an ally is not the boss; it does not drag the US behind it.”

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect about the incessant calls for an Israeli strike was the fact that the most strident hawks, both American and Israeli, appeared to see war as something abstract, a pin in your opponent's map. But any war gives license not only to the righteous but to the avid, the brutal and the criminal – and any war ignores the fact that war means the death of helpless and innocent people.

Thankfully, this latter view seems be seizing new ground and gaining new strength in both Israel and America.


1. “A New Nuclear Reaction,” Avner Cohen, Haaretz, Nov 21, 2011.
2. “Israel's Secret Iran Attack Plan: Electronic Warfare,” The Daily Beast, Eli Lake, Nov, 16, 2011