Surprise! Why An Israeli Strike on Iran is Unlikely

If Israel does launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities it will be the most widely anticipated military operation in modern history, even more so than D-Day or the 2003 campaign against Iraq.  The buildup to those operations lasted a few years.  Speculation about an Israeli strike on Iran has persisted for more than a decade.  And this leads one to the most obvious of conclusions -- that if Israel has not struck yet, it won't.   

I don't pretend to know one way or the other, but the fact that conditions for an Israeli strike against Iran were more favorable a few years ago than they are today is a relatively persuasive argument that the window of opportunity, if it ever existed, may have passed. 

In a recent piece, The Weekly Standard's Reuel Marc Gerecht makes this point, among many others. But the gist of Gerecht's piece is that if the leadership of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) believes that military success is probable, then the widely bruited, supposedly disastrous consequences of such a strike, (e.g. Iranian counter moves in the Persian Gulf and against American and Israeli interests, strengthening of the Iranian regime, weakening of opposition movements, etc.) are much overrated. 

Gerecht makes a compelling case for an Israeli strike, if the IAF leadership thinks it is feasible.  Where I think he may err -- and many other pundits as well -- is in guessing that if the IAF proposes a plan, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  would be particularly inclined accept an optimistic IAF evaluation and launch a strike.    

Of course, nobody knows the exact conditions for a successful IAF strike, although if you want a hypothetical plane-by-plane and target-by-target operational plan the Center for Strategic and International Studies produced one for general consumption.  The real question is at what point Israel's political leadership pushes past the uncertainty.  Here the threshold is likely much higher than Gerecht and other like-minded pundits imagine. 

It's true historically that Israel's leadership has put great faith in the IAF, and that this confidence has generally been well rewarded.  The IAF is the world's only air force to have taken out enemy nuclear installations, and it is a perfect two-for-two in that regard (against Iraq and Syria.)  Likewise, the IAF had spectacular successes in the 1967 War and the 1982 Lebanon War.  On the other hand, over-reliance in the ability of Israel's airman to solve its military problems led to setbacks in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 2006 Lebanon War.   

Gerecht not only places great store on what the IAF might tell Netanyahu but on the fact that Netanyahu is an ardent Zionist and Israeli patriot.  And for that matter, there is little reason to doubt the bona fides of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, or any other element of Israel's mainstream leadership when it comes to a genuine desire to protect the nation.  The radical anti-Zionist Israeli left has yet to come to power, and hopefully never will. 

Gerecht also particularly cites the Netanyahu's family background, noting that his father was a famous scholar of oppressed Spanish Jewry, and his brother, the only commando to die at Entebbe.  Here is an implication that Netanyahu might be willing gamble on the IAF if he truly believes Iran is near to producing a nuclear weapon. 

But the brother who is likely to have the most influence on Netanyahu is not his fallen older brother Jonathan, but rather his younger brother Iddo, who has over the past decades devoted much time and effort to detailing the circumstances of Jonathan Netanyahu's death at Entebbe, the results of which are sobering. For the truth is, the military situation vis a vis Iran is in many ways more similar to Entebbe, than it is to the surgical anti-nuclear strikes carried out by the IAF against Iraq and Syria.  And the reasons for this are the issues of complexity and surprise.  

An Israeli attack on Iran would be an enormously complex undertaking, so much so, that the actual point the attack, dropping bombs on Iran's nuclear facilities, is but one facet of a gigantic political, diplomatic, logistic, technical, and operational problem.   It is similar to the situation faced at Entebbe, when the problem of getting a rescue force from Israel into the heart of Africa to a large extent subsumed the actual goal of the raid -- rescuing the hostages. 

The truth about Entebbe, divorced from superficial accounts of daring, heroism and Hollywood fantasy, is that the raid, which can legitimately be considered the boldest and most successful hostage rescue in history, came very close to becoming a tragic failure.  There is insufficient space here for a full detailed account of the matter, but the actual rescue of the hostages was arguably the weakest part of the plan, and the portion of the operation that came closest to failure. 

In summary, Entebbe occurred in 1976, when Western armies were still adjusting to the problem of suicidal hostage takers, and sophisticated hostage rescue techniques were in their infancy.  Many devices rescue forces take for granted today, such as flash bang grenades or night vision devices, were unavailable.  Success, even for the best troops, was a hit and miss affair.  Two years before Entebbe, at a high school in the northern Israeli town of Ma'alot, a botched IDF rescue attempt resulted in scores of deaths and injuries.  

The Entebbe rescue plan sought to avoid another Ma'alot through the element of surprise.  It called for a thirty man sayeret matkal team (led by Lieutenant Colonel Netanyahu) to immediately drive off the first aircraft to land at Entebbe in a black Mercedes and a pair of Land Rovers meant to imitate Ugandan President Idi Amin's motorcade. The commandos themselves were crudely disguised in Ugandan style uniforms and blackface, and carried AK-47s like the Ugandan army.  The vehicles were to drive up to the doors of the terminal where the hostages were held, whereupon the commandos were to leap out, rush the building and rescue the hostages before the terrorists knew what was happening.    

But this was just one element of a much more complex plan, that also required three other transport aircraft to reach Entebbe via a long dangerous flight route, land unobserved and unmolested, seize the airport, destroy Ugandan fighter planes, ambush Ugandan reinforcements, guard the rescue aircraft, treat and evacuate casualties and rescued hostages, refuel the aircraft and withdraw, all of which required 120 or so additional troops plus vehicles.  There were of course, also multiple additional political, diplomatic, command/control and logistic considerations. 

In the event, Colonel Netanyahu's rescue convoy was intercepted by a pair of Ugandan soldiers several hundred meters from the terminal.  The Israelis tried to kill both with small caliber silenced pistols, but one soldier survived the assault and fled.  Commandos gunned him down with un-silenced machine guns.  Ugandan soldiers then opened fire on the convoy as it moved out again. Netanyahu, fearing that the rescue team would be annihilated in its thin skinned vehicles, ordered the commandos to abandon them and run to the terminal, still at least fifty meters away. 

Some commandos fired back as they ran, emptying their ammo magazines. They arrived at the terminal disordered and sheltered in the lee of the building, the plan a shambles.  To add to the confusion, the terminal building did not match the mock-up upon which they'd trained.  The assault came to a stop.  Netanyahu then stepped out into the open to urge on the attack and was mortally wounded.  At this point the rescue at Entebbe would seem to have failed. 

What saved it was the still overwhelming effect of surprise, and a bit of individual courage and initiative.  Inside the terminal the German and Palestinian terrorists had been alarmed by the shooting and shouting outside,  but were so certain that they were safe from an Israeli rescue attempt that they attributed the commotion to in-fighting among the Ugandans, whom they held in low regard anyway.  This over-confidence had been deliberately fostered by the Israeli government, which prior to the raid had essentially admitted surrender, and agreed (at that time contrary to Israeli practice) to negotiate with the terrorists. 

As the terrorists stood by, a few individual commandos acted on their own initiative and stormed the building.  They killed the terrorists and rescued the hostages.   

Netanyahu and Barak are former commandos themselves, and when briefed by IAF commanders they will know the story of Entebbe, and countless other operations, many from personal involvement.  They will understand that anything in a complex plan that can go wrong likely will.  And they will also know that the one thing that saved the day at Entebbe, the element of strategic surprise, will be absent in an assault on Iran.  The only surprise the Israelis can hope for in a strike against Iran is the precise date and time, and considering the complexities of getting scores of aircraft through hostile airspace before even reaching Iranian skies, they might not even have that.  

If the Israelis were serious about attacking Iran, the best thing they could do now is stop talking about it.  Indeed, ideally, the Israelis would appear accept the position that seems to be that of the United States under President Obama -- that a nuclear Iran is inevitable and manageable. Then maybe they could lull the Iranian leadership and military into complacency and hope to regain a bit of strategic surprise.  But right now, with every eye trained on Israeli skies and the world expectantly awaiting an Israeli assault, the chances of Israeli success must be dramatically reduced, a fact not lost on Netanyahu and Barak.

I don't pretend to know what Israel will do, and nobody would be happier to see a successful Israeli strike on Iran than me, but logic suggests that if the Israelis haven't done it yet, they probably never will.  And Benjamin Netanyahu is no more likely to launch an attack than his predecessors, for the same set of complex reasons that they were restrained.