August 16, 2005
Israel: The warning shot optionBy James Lewis
"Iran may now have its Stalin," wrote Niall Fergusan in the Sunday Telegraph of London this week.
He has just appointed his war cabinet. The world may therefore be coming to the most dangerous point since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It has now been officially confirmed that Iran has been waging undeclared war against the US—led coalition in Iraq.
I have previously argued that the Sunni Arab nations like Saudia Arabia and Egypt are actually the most vulnerable to an aggressive, nuclear Iran, because they lack a nuclear second—strike capacity, and are natural enemies, after more than a thousand years of hostility with the Persian Shiites of Iran.
But the most hated nation, of course, is Israel. For years the Foreign Ministry in Tehran was draped with a 40—foot banner proclaiming that "Israel must burn."
The question therefore is what Israel can do. The Europeans have just collapsed, having been told in public by Iran that the last two years of "negotiations" were designed to buy time so that Tehran could complete its nuclear plant at Isfahan.
They are said to be privately "furious." But the voices of appeasement can be heard all over. Chancellor Schroeder is again waging an America—bashing election, blaming the US for Europe's dismal failures, and Michael Portillo, eternal candidate to head the Tories in Britain, has just told us that
Stalin would have known the meaning of those utterances from leading politicians, and so does Ahmedinejad. It is a green light for aggression.
Israel may be the only country in the world in which convicted terrorists can appeal to the Supreme Court in the middle of a hot war. Israeli policy is hedged with ethical restrictions, some from the rabbinical tradition, and others from the experience of the Holocaust. Yet we know that Golda Meir considered the nuclear option when Israel was about to be overrun in the1973 Yom Kippur War, and that Moshe Dayan at one point believed it to be inevitable in the Six Day War of 1967.
Israeli nuclear doctrine, which is never stated publicly, can therefore be predicted with some probability. First, Israel
In practice that means that Israel's weapons are probably kept in a disassembled state. They can be assembled and armed within minutes, to ward off any surprise attack.
Second, like the United States, Israel would only use nuclear weapons in extremis, when threatened with a second Holocaust. Third, within the limits of wartime realities, Israel does its utmost to avoid civilian casualties, a doctrine the IDF calls "purity of arms." In spite of a drumbeat of European media slander against Israel, the IDF continues to enforce its doctrine of minimizing civilian casualties, sometimes at great cost to its own soldiers.
No doubt those ethical restrictions are sometimes violated in practice, but decent governments discipline their troops to practice extraordinary self—restraint. The human desire for revenge may not be controllable at all times, but good governments do their utmost. We saw it last week when a Jewish army deserter shot three unarmed Palestinians. He was immediately denounced as a terrorist by Ariel Sharon and the entire Israeli establishment, who are genuinely shocked that a Jew could commit such violence. If the Palestinians felt the same way, peace in the Middle East would break out tomorrow.
Iran openly aims to have nukes long before the recent US National Intelligence Estimate of ten years, the most dubious NIE in a long series of grossly over—optimistic estimates. Tehran already has an intermediate—range ballistic missile, anti—ship missiles to control the naval choke—point at the Strait of Hormuz, and it is developing an ICBM with a range of 6,000 miles that could eventually reach American shores.
What are the options?
To forestall a nuclear Iran it is quite possible that Israel will attack Tehran's nuclear facilities. But those facilities are buried deep underground and are widely dispersed. If Israel attacks and fails, Tehran will doubtless claim the right to retaliate in any way it can. Failure is therefore not an option.
All of which leads to the possibility of a nuclear warning shot. The United States has had a credible nuclear deterrent for fifty years, because Stalin and Mao clearly understood Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be warning shots to any aggressor. More recently India and Pakistan both exploded underground devices, and after days of wild celebrations in the streets, sobriety suddenly hit home. Those explosions were effective warnings to each other, cold buckets of water for the hotheads. India and Pakistan are now negotiating a tentative d�tente.
The Iranians have everything to lose in a nuclear exchange. Just like Stalin and Mao, they boast that their country is big enough to survive a nuclear strike, and Ahmadinejad adds that
But Israel is reliably estimated to have some 100 nuclear weapons and could theoretically level every city in Iran many times over. Since some of those weapons are carried by submarines, Israel also has a second strike capacity. But it should strike sooner rather than later, before Iran obtains a nuclear weapon.
Israel is extremely unlikely to contemplate a total war option unless missiles are launched against it, but the rulers of Tehran cannot be sure about that, and their worldview may be sufficiently bizarre to allow them to believe anything about "the little Satan." An Israeli nuclear warning shot may therefore be a viable option, to induce a sudden sense of cold reality in Ayatollah Khamenei and his new puppet President Ahmadinejad. It would certainly cause an uproar in the mullocracy, which has grown fat and corrupt with absolutely no desire for personal martyrdom. Such an uproar might even endanger the Supreme Leader's position.
Two kinds of warning shots are consistent with Israeli doctrine. Both avoid unnecessary civilian casualties, like Israel's attack on Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor in 1981. First is an underground explosion in the Negev desert, which may have been prepared for decades. It would register on seismometers around the world, and be instantly identified as a nuclear explosion.
In the most optimistic case an underground nuclear explosion on Israeli soil would awaken the entire Middle East to its imminent peril. Islamist suicide types might boast of their love for death, but there is no Koranic verse proclaiming that the entire Ummah of Allah should court wholesale self—destruction. That would defeat the goal of converting the world to Islam. Even Iranian martyrology is not prepared for total suicide. So a warning shot under the Negev desert might encourage some sanity in Tehran.
The wild card in all this is the jihadists, small groups of desperate men with nothing to lose, who might jury—rig a low—tech radiation bomb, or even steal a nuclear device and fly it to Israel in a hijacked plane. In the face of an actual WMD attack Israel might well strike out against any and all terror—sponsoring nations. Iran and Syria claim they cannot control such creatures, but the fact is that they have a long history of destroying domestic radicals. Currently they are getting away with supporting terrorist proxies surrounding Israel — Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. But if their own existence were threatened they could erase their terror puppets in the twinkling of an eye. Syria had no hesitation in killing an estimated 50,000 people in the city of Hama in 1983 in order to abolish a center of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A second kind of Israel warning shot is therefore conceivable, if Jerusalem felt sufficiently threatened. It would have to occur in the deserts of Iran or Saudi Arabia, regions that are nearly uninhabited. Because undergound explosions would be impossible to prepare in those regions, it would have to be a surface blast, possibly with a low—yield weapon to minimize nuclear fallout. Saudi Arabia is sacred ground to a billion Muslims, who should not be antagonized if possible. The Israeli strategy would be to divide the Sunni Saudis from the Shiite Persians. That suggests a desert explosion in Iran itself. Iran is half desert, and a cruise missile could deliver a nuclear device with great precision in a salt lake or a wadi, or even be preceded by conventional bunker buster bombs to create a large enough cavity to limit fallout.
Any nuclear device would make the target area unlivable for the foreseeable future, and perhaps cause ecological damage. Civilian casualties might be limited but not avoidable. If a cloud of radioactive fallout were to drift across national boundaries it would cause panic, as the Chernobyl disaster did. Since Israel has had decades to plan for such a contingency, it may have developed ways to minimize nuclear fallout. If one desert warning shot had no effect, a series of desert explosions could be walked, step by step, in the direction of Tehran. No rational regime could withstand such pressure; but it is always possible that Tehran is not rational.
Europe and the Middle East would go into public hysterics. Israel might face a trade boycott and severe political damage. The United Nations, now Hate—Israel Central, might expel the Israeli government. At the same time, if warning shots worked by inducing some sanity in Tehran, behind the scenes the whole world would heave a collective sigh of relief, just as it did when Israel bombed Saddam's Osirak reactor. If it worked, the oppressed people of Iran would rejoice.
As a military man, Sharon has always specialized in surprises. That has often ended up saving lives, both Israeli and Arab. An entirely unpredictable strike against Iran can therefore not be ruled out. But Israel does not have America's depth of armed might. Any military action would have to be swift and limited. In such an action, Israel might wield the sword, while the US could be the shield by positioning Aegis missile—defense ships to kill Iranian missiles in their vulnerable boost phase. Israel might become an even bigger international scapegoat, but it has learned to live with that over the last few decades.
Things may come to a crunch soon. The recent, wildly optimistic estimate of 10 years of safety has no credibility. If Iran is on the verge of nuclear weapons, Israel and the United States would be forced to act, and let the consequences fall where they may.