By George Friedman: Israel has expressed serious concerns over the preliminary U.S.-Iranian agreement, which in theory will lift sanctions levied against Tehran and end its nuclear program. That was to be expected. Less obvious is why the Israeli government is concerned and how it will change Israel’s strategic position.
Israel’s current strategic position is excellent. After two years of stress, its peace treaty with Egypt remains in place. Syria is in a state of civil war that remains insoluble. Some sort of terrorist threat might originate there, but no strategic threat is possible. In Lebanon, Hezbollah does not seem inclined to wage another war with Israel, and while the group’s missile capacity has grown, Israel appears able to contain the threat they pose without creating a strategic threat to Israeli national interests. The Jordanian regime, which is aligned with Israel, probably will withstand the pressure put on it by its political opponents.
In other words, the situation that has existed since the Camp David Accords were signed remains in place. Israel’s frontiers are secure from conventional military attack. In addition, the Palestinians are divided among themselves, and while ineffective, intermittent rocket attacks from Gaza are likely, there is no Intifada underway in the West Bank.
Therefore, Israel faces no existential threats, save one: the possibility that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon and a delivery system and use it to destroy Israel before it or the United States can prevent it from doing so. Clearly, a nuclear strike on Tel Aviv would be catastrophic for Israel. Its ability to tolerate that threat, regardless of how improbable it may be, is a pressing concern for Israel.
In this context, Iran’s nuclear program supersedes all of Israel’s other security priorities. Israeli officials believe their allies, particularly those in the United States, should share this view. As a strategic principle, this is understandable. But it is unclear how Israel intends to apply it. It is also unclear how its application will affect relations with the United States, without which it cannot cope with the Iranian threat.
Israel understands that however satisfactory its current circumstances are, those circumstances are mercurial and to some extent unpredictable. Israel may not rely heavily on the United States under these circumstances, but these circumstances may not be permanent. There are plenty of scenarios in which Israel would not be able to manage security threats without American assistance. Thus, Israel has an overriding interest in maintaining its relationship with the United States and in ensuring Iran never becomes a nuclear state. So any sense that the United States is moving away from its commitment to Israel, or that it is moving in a direction where it might permit an Iranian nuclear weapon, is a crisis. Israel’s response to the Iran talks — profound unhappiness without outright condemnation — has to be understood in this context, and the assumptions behind it have to be examined.
More than Uranium
Iran does not appear to have a deliverable nuclear weapon at this point. Refining uranium is a necessary but completely insufficient step in developing a weapon. A nuclear weapon is much more than uranium. It is a set of complex technologies, not the least of which are advanced electrical systems and sensors that, given the amount of time the Iranians have needed just to develop not-quite-enough enriched uranium, seems beyond them. Iran simply does not have sufficient fuel to produce a device.
Nor it does not have a demonstrated ability to turn that device into a functioning weapon. A weapon needs to be engineered to extreme tolerances, become rugged enough to function on delivery and be compact enough to be delivered. To be delivered, its must be mounted on a very reliable missile or aircraft. Iran has neither reliable missiles nor aircraft with the necessary range to attack Israel. The idea that the Iranians will use the next six months for a secret rush to complete the weapon simply isn’t the way it works.
Before there is a weapon there must be a test. Nations do not even think of deploying nuclear weapons without extensive underground tests — not to see if they have uranium but to test that the more complex systems work. That is why they can’t secretly develop a weapon: They themselves won’t know they have a workable weapon without a test. In all likelihood, the first test would fail, as such things do. Attempting their first test in an operational attack would result not only in failure but also in retaliation.
Of course, there are other strategies for delivering a weapon if it were built. One is the use of a ship to deliver it to the Israeli coast. Though this is possible, the Israelis operate an extremely efficient maritime interdiction system, and the United States monitors Iranian ports. The probability is low that a ship would go unnoticed. Having a nuclear weapon captured or detonated elsewhere would infuriate everyone in the eastern Mediterranean, invite an Israeli counterstrike and waste a weapon
Otherwise, Iran theoretically could drive a nuclear weapon into Israel by road. But these weapons are not small. There is such a thing as a suitcase bomb, but that is a misleading name; it is substantially larger than a suitcase, and it is also the most difficult sort of device to build. Because of its size, it is not particularly rugged. You don’t just toss it into the trunk, drive 1,500 miles across customs checkpoints and set it off. There are many ways you can be captured — particularly crossing into Israel — and many ways to break the bomb, which require heavy maintenance. Lastly, even assuming Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, its use against Israel would kill as many Muslims — among them Shia — as Israelis, an action tantamount to geopolitical suicide for Tehran.
A Tempered Response
One of the reasons Israel has not attempted an airstrike, and one of the reasons the United States has refused to consider it, is that Iran’s prospects for developing a nuclear weapon are still remote. Another reason is difficulty. Israel’s air force is too far removed and too small to carry out simultaneous strikes on multiple facilities. If the Israelis forward-deployed to other countries, the Iranians would spot them. The Israelis can’t be certain which sites are real and which are decoys. The Iranians have had years to harden their facilities, so normal ordnance likely would be inadequate. Even more serious is the fact that battle damage assessment — judging whether the site has been destroyed — would be prohibitively difficult.
For these reasons, the attack could not simply be carried out from the air. It would require special operations forces on the ground to try to determine the effects. That could result in casualties and prisoners, if it could be done at all. And at that the Israelis can only be certain that they have destroyed all the sites they knew about, not the ones that their intelligence didn’t know about. Some will dismiss this as overestimating Iranian capabilities. This frequently comes from those most afraid that Tehran can build a nuclear weapon and a delivery system. If it could