Israeli defense officials question threat to attack Iran

TEL AVIV – As diplomatic efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program falter, Israel’s defense minister has ordered his forces to prepare a military option, warning the world that Israel will take matters into its own hands if a new nuclear deal does not did not restrict Iran sufficiently.

But several current and former senior Israeli officials and military experts say Israel lacks the capacity to launch an assault that could destroy, or even significantly delay, Iran’s nuclear program, at least not any time soon. A current senior security official said it would take at least two years to prepare for an attack that could cause significant damage to Iran’s nuclear project.

A smaller-scale strike, damaging parts of the program without ending it entirely, would be achievable sooner, experts and officials say. But a broader effort to destroy the dozens of nuclear sites in remote areas of Iran – the kind of attack Israeli officials have threatened – would exceed the current resources of the Israeli armed forces.

“It is very difficult – I would even say impossible – to launch a campaign that would take care of all of these sites,” said Relik Shafir, a retired Israeli Air Force general who was a pilot during the event. a strike in 1981 against an Iraqi nuclear installation.

“In the world we live in, the only air force that can sustain a campaign is the US Air Force,” he said.

The recent discussion of a military attack on Iran is part of an Israeli pressure campaign to ensure that countries negotiating with Iran in Vienna do not accept what Israeli officials see as “a bad deal” , an agreement which, in their opinion, would not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

For now, there seems little chance that this will happen, as talks, aimed at resuscitating the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, have only regressed since the new radical Iranian government joined them on last month.

So far, Israel has attempted to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which it views as an existential threat, through a combination of aggressive diplomacy and covert attacks. Israeli officials saw it as a coup when they managed to persuade President Donald J. Trump to withdraw from the 2015 deal, which President Biden now wants to save.

Israel has also waged a shadow war through espionage, targeted assassinations, sabotage and cyber attacks – smaller-scale operations it has never officially claimed. Israel secretly considered launching large-scale airstrikes in 2012 before abandoning the plan.

But as Iran’s nuclear enrichment program approaches military grade levels, Israeli politicians have increasingly openly warned what the world has long assumed: that Israel may turn to a open war if Iran was allowed to make progress towards developing a nuclear weapon, a goal Iran denies.

In September, the head of the Israeli armed forces, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, said much of the increase in the military budget had been allocated to preparing for a strike against Iran. Earlier this month, Mossad chief David Barnea said Israel would do “whatever it takes” to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb.

This month, during a visit to the United States, Defense Minister Benny Gantz publicly announced that he had ordered the IDF to prepare for a possible military strike against Iran.

But Israeli experts and military officials say Israel currently lacks the capacity to deal with Iran’s nuclear program with an aerial coup de grace.

Iran has dozens of nuclear sites, some deep down that would be difficult for Israeli bombs to penetrate and destroy quickly, Shafir said. The Israeli Air Force does not have warplanes big enough to carry the latest anti-bunker bombs, so the most protected sites would have to be repeatedly struck with less effective missiles, a process which could take days or even weeks, Shafir added.

A current senior security official said Israel currently lacks the capacity to inflict significant damage on the underground facilities at Natanz and Fordow.

Such an effort would be complicated by a shortage of refueling aircraft. The ability to refuel is crucial for a bomber that may have to travel over 3,000 kilometers round trip, passing through Arab countries that would not want to be a supply stopover for an Israeli strike.

Israel has ordered eight new KC-46 refuellers from Boeing at a cost of $ 2.4 billion, but the planes are out of stock and Israel is unlikely to receive one before the end of 2024.

In addition to the ability to strike targets, Israel would have to simultaneously repel Iranian fighter jets and air defense systems.

Any attack on Iran would also trigger retaliatory attacks by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, allies of Iran who would attempt to force Israel to wage war on multiple fronts simultaneously.

Iran’s defense capabilities are also much stronger than in 2012, when Israel seriously considered attacking for the last time. Its nuclear sites are better fortified and it has more surface-to-surface missiles that can be launched quickly from tunnels.

“It is very possible that when Israeli planes attempt to land in Israel, they will find that Iranian missiles have destroyed their runways,” said Tal Inbar, aviation expert and former director of the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, an aviation research group.

Other military experts, however, say Israel could still eliminate the most important parts of Iran’s nuclear apparatus, even without newer planes and equipment.

“It’s always good to replace a 1960 car with a brand new 2022 car,” said Amos Yadlin, a former Air Force general who also participated in the 1981 strike. “But we have refueling capabilities. We have bunker breakers. We have one of the best air forces in the world. We have very good information on Iran. We can do it.

“Can the US Air Force do better?” Definitively. They have a much more capable air force. But they don’t have the will.

He warned he would only support a strike as a last resort.

Israeli officials refuse to discuss the red lines Iran must cross to justify a military strike. However, a senior defense official said that if Iran started enriching 90 percent purity uranium, military grade fuel, Israel would be forced to step up its actions. U.S. officials have said Iran is currently enriching uranium up to 60 percent purity.

That it could take years to put in place a program to carry out a massive air campaign against Iran should come as no surprise to Israeli military officials. When Israel contemplated such an attack in 2012, preparations took more than three years, Israeli officials said.

But the distance between the current government’s threats and its ability to carry them out has sparked criticism against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who led the Israeli government until last June and was an ardent fan. defender of a harsher approach to Iran.

Since 2015, training for a strike against Iran has slowed, a senior Israeli military official said, as the defense establishment focused on clashes with militias in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.

In 2017, the Israeli Air Force determined that it needed to replace its refueling planes, but Mr. Netanyahu’s government did not order them until last March.

And another senior military official said the military had asked Netanyahu since 2019 for additional funds to improve Israel’s ability to attack Iran, but was pushed back.

In a statement, Mr. Netanyahu’s office said the opposite was true, that it was Mr. Netanyahu who called for more resources and energy for a strike against Iran as military leaders insisted on spending most of their budget to other matters and slowed down preparations. hit Iran.

“Without the political, operational and budgetary actions taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu over the past decade, Iran would have long had an arsenal of nuclear weapons,” the statement added.

Whether or not Mr. Netanyahu restricted the funding, experts said the money under discussion would not have significantly altered the military’s ability to attack Iran.

“You can always improve yourself – by buying more refueling planes, newer planes, larger loads of fuel,” Mr. Shafir said. But even with these improvements and a superior air force, he said, Israeli airstrikes would not end Iran’s nuclear program.

However, they would likely set the area on fire.

Ronen bergman reported from Tel Aviv, and Patrick kingsley of Jerusalem. Myra Noveck contributed to Jerusalem reporting, and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad from Haifa, Israel.


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