On 10 January, the New York Times posted U.S. Rejected Aid for Israeli Raid on Iranian Nuclear Site, which claims that the U.S. refused to supply Israel with advanced bunker busters, refueling aircraft, or to allow overflights of Iraq for an attack on Iran. Nothing in this article should surprise readers of this blog. In Playing Chicken: how Iran might win a nuclear war back in September 2005, I said that U.S. sale of bunker busters and specialized, long-range aircraft (the F-16I and F-15I) to Israel were part of a U.S. bluff:
[T]he Iranians could reasonably expect that the U.S. would keep Israel in check – in other words, if the U.S. doesn’t act, Israel probably won’t either. The U.S. is obviously playing its version of the game: the sale of equipment to Israel that would be needed for preemption (for example, bunker busters) is rather like throwing the steering wheel out of the car window. “We have no control over the Israelis, and they’ve demonstrated in the past they will preempt,” is the message we’re trying to send. The Iranians – rightly in my opinion – believe this is a bluff.
No U.S. administration was or is going to actively cooperate with Israel in attacking Iran. That’s one of the main reasons I figured that the U.S. had to carry out the attack.
In my first Israeli attack scenario, I analyzed an Israeli attack taking the direct route over Iraq. This scenario was predicated on the U.S. not taking active steps to prevent an overflight – that is, shoot down Israeli aircraft. I said that the Israelis would only inform the U.S. once the attack was underway. Nearly all of the risk in this operation is tied to uncertainties about possible U.S reactions, principally political but some military risks as well. The second scenario posited an attack that stays in international airspace until crossing the Iraqi border. The distance involved is so great and tanker aircraft so limited that only the Natanz site could be hit by a small force. Even if this attack were effective, it would leave the Arak heavy water and plutonium production facilities untouched. The fact that the political cost for Israel is nearly as great as scenario 1, coupled with the limited objectives and tight margins of scenario 2, make it unlikely to be chosen, in my view.
I maintain that if Netanyahu and Likud win, the odds are good that Israel will attack, probably by the direct route though a slightly longer route over Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States can’t be ruled out. Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is – a buddy offered to bet me that Israel would not attack. I wasn’t confident enough to take the bet. For one thing, although Likud probably will win it isn’t a certainty and, were Likud to lose, I’m not particularly confident that the Kadima government will buck the U.S. and attack. (I’ll still stick with the prediction I made on this blog.) I was, however, willing to offer another bet: if the principal Iranian nuclear facilities are not attacked, there will be a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran before the end of 2012.
I’ve been consistent in my analysis that Iran is either not deterrable or will be too aggressive, making it likely Iran will blunder into a nuke war. There is a third possibility I’ve long considered though haven’t heretofore discussed: a nuclear Iran may undergo a political upheaval or revolution and launch its nukes in a final, convulsive Götterdämmerung. Back in March 2005 in Preemptive war against Iran, I said:
From the perspective of the mullahs, Western culture is a mortal threat. Against the freedom, affluence, and vitality of the West, the mullahs can only offer a decadent medievalism that was on the way out 500 years ago. The mullahs realize that without nukes, Iran will be unable to maintain its closed society and the theocracy will collapse of its own weight.
If Iran can be deprived of nukes and otherwise contained, the theocracy will collapse. But what happens if Iran gets its nukes and then the inevitable collapse occurs? The Mullahs are never going to step down peacefully – the theocracy’s janissaries, the fanatical Revolutionary Guard, will fight to the last man. The Revolutionary Guard will also control the Iranian nuclear arsenal when it comes into existence because only the Guard will be deemed politically reliable. It is naïve to believe that, as their last act, the keepers of the nuclear fire will not unleash it on the infidels.
Will Israel’s new Arrow 3, the U.S. Navy’s SM-3, and the Air Force’s Airborne Laser anti-ballistic missile systems be able to shoot down an Iranian strike? The potential effectiveness of the various ABM systems must figure in the Iranian strategic calculus when planning its attack. Talking all of the political, theological, economic, and technological factors into account, I give the odds of a nuclear exchange before 1 January 2013 as 50-50.