Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The clock is ticking

Iran will reportedly install the nuclear rods in their new power plant on Saturday the 21st.  John Bolton says that Israel has to strike before that nuclear fuel is loaded.  I don't really know John Bolton, but the little bit I have seen from him has been specific and clear--unlike anyone else in or around Washington.  That's probably why he didn't last long as our envoy to the UN.

This is do-or-die time for Israel.  Once Iran has this in place it will be impossible to stop them from building bombs capable of wiping Israel off the map.  Israel is reduced to mutually-assured-destruction brinkmanship with Iran--a tactic that doesn't work well against extremists.  For all the noise that Iran makes about the fate of the Palestinians, they are about to kill more of them than Israel ever could.

Israel has three choices at this point:
1. Strike Iran before the end of the week.
2. Before the end of this year, announce that you have nuclear weapons in place that can reach Iran--hoping that mutually-assured-destruction will provide sufficient deterrence.
3. Do nothing, and perish soon.

The rumor mill says that the US "lost" some nuclear material and gave it to Israel years ago.  It would be a breach of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty for the US to give away the material.  This is why no one will officially admit what everyone is sure occurred.

All three options are unappetizing.  But this is an existential threat to Israel.  The only question that matters is which option gives Israel the best chance for survival.  None of these three options guarantee survival.  That level of desperation will certainly affect their reasoning and push them to take action (strike or actively deter) instead of trusting the actions of others.

The Strike Option
To call this one option is a gross over-simplification.  There are any number of types of strikes that they could undertake.  They could use their nuclear weapons on the Iranian nuclear plant.  Or they could strike the plant with conventional weapons.  (Saudi Arabia has already officially granted Israel permission to fly their planes through Saudi airspace for such an attack.)

If I were planning the strike mission my number one goal would be to get the nuclear material out of play.  My second goal would be killing the Iranian scientists and engineers that make their nuclear program possible.  My third goal would be destroying the facility itself.

The clearest way to get the nuclear material out of play would be to insert a strike force of Israeli soldiers and capture it in transit.  That might mean attacking Russian troops directly and in the open.  There is a high chance of failure, and the failure opens the door wide for an Iranian counter-attack.

The cleanest way to accomplish all three goals is to sabotage the facility so that it blows up soon after the Iranians load the fuel.  They will always be blamed for this in the press, but they might could pull it off and not leave any traces that officially implicate them.  They never admit it, and the current status quo remains.  This is definitely the best option, if they have invested in the level of infiltration necessary to pull this off.

If they don't have the infiltration in place, or if the infiltration fails, then a direct conventional strike against the facility is their best military option.  The strike should occur after the fuel arrives and before it is loaded in the reactor.  That timing is critical because they want to keep the nuclear material in its travel protective cases.  Those cases are pretty tough.  They will crack and leak, leaving a radioactive mess.  But they will not allow the radioactive material to spread across the desert and reach nearby cities.

The political fall-out from a military strike will be severe.  This might trigger another conventional war with Israel's neighbors.  It will certainly increase the pace of terrorist attacks against Israel.  But that war will be limited in scope since Saudi Arabia is essentially on Israel's side this time.

Israel should survive.  If Israel plays it right, I would give them a 70%-80% chance of surviving another decade after making a strategic strike.

The Deterrence Option
If the US had a pro-Israel president then we could better help them manage the fall-out of that announcement.  I suspect that they fear the current administration will demand the return of that nuclear material, and withdraw all official support for Israel.  This option will burn bridges and isolate Israel for years to come.  That's not a deal-breaker for the Israelis, but it makes that strategy much more expensive.

If they choose this option then they don't have to act this week.  It will take months, at least, for Iran to weaponize this nuclear material.  Politically, they would be better off waiting for a nuclear weapon announcement from Iran before they make their own announcement.  The problem with waiting is that Iran might strike before making any announcement.  The deterrent won't work if it isn't acknowledged.

For these reasons, if they choose this option, I would expect Israel to immediately begin talking about how Iran has "introduced nuclear politics into the region".  Then they will make their announcement of their nuclear weapons in a few months--before Iran could have their weapon ready.  That announcement will probably be a last-minute event.

Iran's leadership has shown precious little restraint.  Their current line of thinking seems to be "what can we get away with?"  This leads me to believe that they are capable of hatching and executing a quick-strike plan, perhaps smuggling small nuclear weapons into Palestine.

The quick-strike nuclear attack would always hang over their heads.  That's a tough way to live.  It will cause Israeli politics to slide to the extremes.  That's not a good development for anyone.

Israel could survive.  But I would place their decade survival odds at less than 50%.

The Do-Nothing Option
This really isn't an option.  If Israel does nothing then Iran will weaponize their nuclear fuel and use those weapons to wipe out Israel.  They will shed few tears for the suffering they cause the Palestinians.

If Israel's leadership fails to act then there will be a voluntary exodus as intelligent people move away from the target cone.

No comments:

Post a Comment