Pictured above is an Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-16I Sufa fighter jet. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides to attack Iran’s nuclear program, jets such as this one will fly the mission. While some military analysts may view the prospect of a successful attack against Iran unlikely, IAF planners and pilots may be able to find a handle to problem. Netanyahu and the State of Israel will be counting upon them.
According to a June 1, 2015 Associated Press article entitled “Obama: No Military Solution to Iran’s Nuclear Program”, US President Barack Obama stated in a June 1st interview with Israel’s Channel 2 that military action against Iran would not deter its nuclear ambitions and that a verifiable agreement was the best way forward. He explained, “I can, I think, demonstrate, not based on any hope but on facts and evidence and analysis, that the best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons is a verifiable, tough agreement.” Obama emphasized, “A military solution will not fix it. Even if United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program but it will not eliminate it.” The Channel 2 interviewer asked Obama about the possibility of Israel taking military action against Iran without informing the US in advance. Obama responded by stating: “I won’t speculate on that.”
Despite what has been said and done during the nuclear negotiations, Iranian leaders may feel they must do whatever is necessary to ensure the security of their nation and its interests. Support for that perspective comes from the Iranians who in reality were not disinclined to building a nuclear weapon and have not been completely compliant with the international community. There is likely a belief in Tehran that Obama lacks the will to use the type of force necessary to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. However, Iranian leaders must look past the Obama administration to Israel’s possible actions.
The Israelis have been the most vocal critics of the proposed agreement and alarmed by its terms. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu truly believes that a deal lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges would be a terrible mistake. Netanyahu speaks as if he has a type of “intimation” based on his “dominant knowledge” of the Middle East, that Iran was engaged in a major deception. Indeed, Netanyahu might decide to take military action with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) due to fears Iran might eventually develop a nuclear weapon. Some Israeli security analysts disagree with Netanyahu’s views and may have found Netanyahu’s behavior to date to be more frightening than desperate. Some may believe taking military action against Iran is Netanyahu’s default state of mind. However, if he attacks Iran, he will believe that his decision was made with prudence. Netanyahu most likely does not feel a need to defend his beliefs, but he has tried hard to get others to understand the danger that Iran poses to Israel. The stewardship of Israel’s security falls mainly on his shoulders.
An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a daunting task even under the best of circumstances. Russia has agreed to sell Iran its S-300 air defense system which would make the Iranian nuclear program even tougher for Israel or the US to strike. Yet, making it tougher to strike may not be enough to deter Israel from acting. Convinced that taking military action would help to ensure Israel’s security for the present and the future, Netanyahu may gamble that an attack would be successful and may ask Israeli Air Force (IAF) fighter pilots to accept the risk involved. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero. (While we are talking, envious time is fleeing: seize the day, put not trust in the future.)
Some may believe taking military action against Iran is Netanyahu’s default state of mind. However, if he attacks Iran, he will believe that his decision was made with prudence. Netanyahu unlikely feels a need to defend his beliefs, but he has tried hard to get other leaders, particularly in the US and Europe, to understand his view of the danger Iran poses to Israel. The stewardship of Israel’s security falls mainly on his shoulders.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once said a leader who does not hesitate before sending his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader. Will is not self-justifying. It must be guided by the intellect. Prudence is the right use of intellect and the right use of reason. Aristotle defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium: the right reason applied in practice. Through prudence, one establishes what needs to be done and the way to do it. Prudence allows one to be just and justice creates the motive for temperance in decision making, as well as all things. One cannot simply make a decision and then describe it as “prudential judgment.” One must avoid building upon a false idea. Looking deeper will prevent one from succumbing to myopia. There are three stages to an act of prudence: 1) to take counsel carefully with oneself and from others; 2) to judge correctly on the basis of the evidence at hand; and, 3) to direct the rest of one’s activity according to the norms determined after a prudent judgment has been made. Disregarding others who seek to disabuse just by expressing skepticism is correct. Yet, ignoring the advice or warnings of others with a history of good judgment only because their reasoning results in a conflicting assessment, is considered a sign of imprudence. By its definition, prudence requires us to judge correctly. If consequently ones judgment is proven incorrect, then ones evaluation of the issue at hand was likely counterfeit. However, Golda Meir counsels on this point: “I can honestly say that I was never affected by the question of the success of an undertaking. If I felt it was the right thing to do, I was for it regardless of the possible outcome.”
Advice of Others
No evidence has been presented publicly or hinted at privately that Iran has been concealing a militarized nuclear program. The US intelligence community has recognized Iran has moved closer to having the capability to build a nuclear weapon and that is why a great part of the negotiation effort has been to push them further back from doing so. Yet, US officials always note that Iran has never failed to comply with all terms of agreements its negotiators have signed during the talks. The US has been willing to share with Israel what it knows about technological developments in Iran and the nuclear negotiation’s progress. For example, Haaretz reported on June 9, 2015 that two senior Israeli officials revealed anonymously that the Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) John Brennan came to Israel on June 4, 2015 and spoke with the Head of the Intelligence Service (Mossad), Tamir Pardo, and other senior members of Israel’s intelligence community to include the Head of Military Intelligence, IDF Major General Herzl Halevi. The anonymous officials also said Brennan met with Netanyahu and his National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen. No details of what was said in those secret meetings were provided. However, a briefing provided by US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman to Israeli foreign affairs reporters, as reported by Haaretz on April 13, 2015, gives one a sense of the views US officials were sharing with their Israeli counterparts. Sherman told the reporters that despite fears expressed in 2013 that Iran would soon have a nuclear weapon, the US and Israeli intelligence communities concur that Iran is not close to producing one. She went on to state that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made no decision to produce one. Sherman proffered, “They [The Iranians] don’t have enough fissile material and don’t have delivery system or weapon per se.” She also noted, “It would take them a considerable period of time to get all that.” Indeed, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action requires Iran to pare down its capacity to enrich uranium to the point that it would take at least 12 months to amass enough uranium enriched to weapons grade for one bomb. Iran would be required to modify its Arak Heavy Water Reactor to meaningfully reduce its proliferation potential and bar Iran from developing any capability for separating plutonium from spent fuel for weapons. Enhanced international inspections and monitoring would be put in place that would help to deter Iran from attempting to violate the agreement. If Iran did so, the inspections and monitoring would improve the international community’s ability to detect it promptly and, if necessary, disrupt any efforts to build nuclear weapons, including at potential undeclared sites.
Sherman emphasized during the briefing that the US also shared Israel’s concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program, its involvement in terror around the world and its subversive activities in the Middle East. With regard to Netanyahu’s concerns, Sherman said that they were legitimate and expressed the view, “There is no difference [between the US and Israel] on the concern about the Iranian nuclear program but on the way to deal with it.” Interestingly, the US and its allies have been engaged in efforts in addition to the nuclear negotiations to slow Iran’s progress. They have included: imposing sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, blocking the shipment of necessary technology, introducing defective parts into Iran’s supply chain; and attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities with a super-sophisticated cyber weapon.
At the UN General Assembly in 2012, Netanyahu presented the bomb shaped chart above of the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. The red line close to the top indicated Iran was amassing too much uranium enriched at 20 percent, the enrichment stage just before making weapons-grade material. In accord with the November 2013 Interim Agreement, Iran diluted its reserves of uranium enriched at 20 percent. That did not sway Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is not ignoring the Obama administration’s arguments. His case is that the only way to make sure Iran never gets a bomb is to shutdown every enrichment plant and reactor it might use to get one. His position founded on a belief that Iran’s long history of nuclear deception means that any facilities left in place would eventually be put to use. To bolster his case, Netanyahu invoked one of the great failures of US counterproliferation efforts: the diplomatic attempts of President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush to talk North Korea into restrictions to keep the regime from producing nuclear weapons. The North Koreans agreed to disable one of their facilities, but when things went sour with the Obama administration the facility was rebuilt. Within a few years, it got the bomb. In his speech to a joint meeting of US Congress on March 3, 2015, Netanyahu contended that any agreement that leaves Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb, it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” Netanyahu would like allies in the US Congress to stop an agreement and halt the negotiations so that greater pressure could be placed on Iran through other means, primarily sanctions. Speaking at the UN General Assembly in 2012, Netanyahu presented a bomb shaped chart of the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. It had a red line close to the top indicating Iran was amassing too much uranium enriched at 20 percent. That is the enrichment stage just before making weapons-grade material.
As a result of the Interim Agreement signed by P5+1 and Iran in November 2013, Iran diluted its reserves of uranium enriched at 20 percent. That did not sway Netanyahu. Despite Iran’s reportedly good behavior during the negotiations and the longstanding claim of Iranian leaders that they would never seek a nuclear weapon for both practical and religious reasons, it is now known that Iran conducted activities relevant to weapons development as part of an organized program prior to 2003. The IAEA laid out its allegations regarding those activities in November 2011. The IAEA previously claimed it had made some progress with Iran in the investigation of this matter between November 2013 and August 2014, that process is now stalled. The P5+1 wants Iran answer the IAEA’s questions and allow access to the individuals and sites necessary to complete the investigation. This delay has occurred even though Iran has only been asked to implement a set of measures to address the IAEA’s outstanding questions. Moreover, the removal of UN Security Council sanctions will not occur until and unless Iran cooperates with the IAEA investigation and past questions are resolved. Even supporters of the Iran Talks do not believe Iran will make any full confession regarding its past weapons related work, especially given statements by senior Iranian officials on the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program and the rejection of nuclear weapons. Netanyahu also does not put much into the tacit “mort-gage” that the framework agreement establishes on the lifespan of the religious regime in Tehran and the hope it will be eased out of power within the timeframe of the 10 and 15 year restrictions on centrifuge and uranium enrichment research and development. Ab actu ad posse valet illatio. (From the past, one can infer the future.)
Back in 2010, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that NetanyahuBack in 2010, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that Netanyahu and his Minister of Defense, Ehud Barack, had given orders for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to prepare to strike Iran within hours if required. However, then Chief of the General Staff of the IDF, Lieutenant General (Rav Aluf) Gabi Ashkenazi, and the Head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, expressed opposition to the idea. Ashkenazi advised that an attack against Iran would be a strategic mistake given the risk of war. Dagan explained to Netanyahu that an attack would be illegal and said a full cabinet decision was needed. Supposedly, Ashkenazi and Dagan got Netanyahu to withdraw the orders to prepare for a strike. In response to questions Channel 2 put to Netanyahu about events surrounding this past order to attack Iran, he responded, “In the final reckoning, the responsibility lies with the prime minister and as long as I am prime minister, Iran will not have the atomic bomb.” He went on to state, “If there’s no other way, Israel is ready to act.”
Pictured above is the S-300PMU-1. Russia decided to bolster Iran’s air defenses with its S-300 surface to air missiles. The S-300 is a mobile system that can strike targets at a distance of 150 km and an altitude of 27,000 meters. As a result of its participation in the Helenic [Greek] Air Force’s INIOXOS-2015 exercises, the IAF collected important data on flying against S-300PMU-1 during simulated attacks on ground targets.
Judging Existing Evidence: Is A Military Strike Realistic?
Former Israeli Prime Minister and former Chief of the General Staff of the IDF, Yitzak Rabin, was quoted as saying “Israel has an important principle: It is only Israel that is responsible for our security.” In 2013, Obama said, “We’ve got Israel’s back” to express his thinking on the defense of Israel. Obama claims the use of military force was implicit in that guarantee. However, as the nuclear negotiations progressed there was a discernible change in Obama’s attitude toward attacking Iran. Threats to use force halted. Tehran began to sense Obama was averse to military action. Netanyahu does. When Sherman spoke to Israeli reporters, she said that the US was totally committed to Israel’s security and is interested in opening a dialogue with Israel’s new government to discuss improving Israel’s security preparedness after the deal with Iran goes into effect. She said such talks are aimed at maintaining the Israeli army’s qualitative edge and ensuring that Israel will be fully capable of defending itself. She was quoted as saying “Israel’s right to exist and Iran’s actions in the region will be dealt with on a parallel track.” She stated further, “The US will consult Israel on what it needs for its security.”
Directly on the point of US military action against Iran, Sherman told Israeli reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She stated, “A military strike by Israel or the US would only set back the nuclear program by two years.” She said further, “You can’t bomb their nuclear know-how, and they will rebuild everything. The alternatives are there but the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” She noted, “There is no difference [between the US and Israel] on the concern about the Iranian nuclear program but on the way to deal with it.” Despite fears expressed in 2013 that Iran would soon have a nuclear weapons, Sherman explained that the US and Israeli intelligence communities agree Iran is not close to producing one and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made no decision to produce one. Sherman said, “They don’t have enough fissile material and don’t have delivery system or weapon per se.” She proffered, “It would take them a considerable period of time to get all that.”
What many view as a big shift in the military equation between Israel and Iran was Russia’s commitment in April 2015 to sell its S-300 missile system to Iran. Ties between Russia and Iran during the nuclear negotiations did not garner any drum beat of media reports, but links have actually grown between the two countries since the talks began. Russia is a Member of the P5+1 given its status as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, yet Russia is a good friend of Iran. With threats of military action having been leveled at Iran, not as much by the US recently but more by Israel, Russia decided to lend support to Iran’s defense. If Iran were to eventually decide not to sign a nuclear deal or decide not to comply with it in the long-run, Iran would not be able to effectively deter a military response from the US or Israel with its current defenses or by developing a few rudimentary nuclear devices for its arsenal. Having its own problems with the Western powers and serving its own economic, business and national security interests, Russia decided to provide Iran with S-300s. The S-300 missile is a mobile surface to air defense system that can strike targets at a distance of 150 km and an altitude of 27,000 meters. The Russians made the point that the S-300 was an entirely defensive system and cannot attack anyone, including Israel. However, the introduction of any version of the S-300 would make attacking Iran by air more difficult. It was already an extremely tough job as much of the Iranian nuclear program is deeply buried. Very powerful bombs would be needed to crack those facilities open. Further, the facilities are scattered country wide. Knowing the number and locations of the S-300s would be critical in an attack. As the S-300 system is mobile, it can be rapidly redeployed. Presumably, with the S-300, Iran can engage in any activities it wants without fear of attack from any country except the US. Aegrescit medendo. (The disease worsens with treatment.)
Directing Activity Based on Judgments
In every conflict since its founding, the IAF has been a decisive factor. Its pilots are nearly regarded as “sky knights,” and hold a special place in the hearts of the Israeli people. Their capabilities are also world-renown. With a modest number of jets, the Israeli Air Force fighter pilots have been able to destroy larger opposing forces in air combat as during the Bekka Valley Air Battle against Syria in June 1982 and carry-out daring bombing raids as Operation Opera, the raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility on June 7, 1981.
According to the Fars News Agency, IRGC Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Salami stated Iran would set fire to any airbase used by enemies to strike the country. Salami declared: “We warn their pilots that their first flight [to strike Iran] will be their last one and no one will be allowed to go back safe and sound and they should call their flights as their last flights.” Yet, IAF pilots are completely immune to such boasts. In response to orders to remove what Israel’s political leadership may perceive as an existential threat to their people, IAF pilots would be willing to fly into Iran to destroy its nuclear program to the best of their ability without withering under some thought that they are flying a “suicide mission.” The pilots know their duty to Israel; they are willing to make sacrifices. That is something IAF commanders and IAF pilots’ families know very well. The Spirit of the IDF, a guideline for operations that forms an ethical code for soldiers, officers, units, and corps includes “Tenacity of Purpose in Performing Mission and Drive to Victory” among its values. Those serving in the IDF are required to fight and conduct themselves with courage in the face of all dangers and obstacles. They must persevere in their missions resolutely and thoughtfully even to the point of endangering their lives.
However, in addition to the pilots’ courage, the IAF is assuredly enhancing existing capabilities to create the real possibility that its pilots could successfully attack Iran’s nuclear program. IAF planners develop the concept for an operation using their expertise based on long careers that included a continuous education and training on aerial warfare and considerable war fighting experience. They know the capabilities of specific individuals and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what would be the real possibility for success of any operation. Reportedly, senior IDF commanders have “cautiously welcomed” a nuclear deal. On the Iranian nuclear threat, one officer anonymously said that by stepping up international inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities and by scaling back uranium enrichment “allow for the supposition that in the coming period of years, this is a threat in decline.” Yet, if Netanyahu asked the IDF to develop a plan for military strikes on Iran, the Chief of the General Staff of the IDF Lieutenant General (Rav Aluf) Gadi Eizenkot, Head of the IDF Planning Directorate Major General Nimrod Sheffer, IAF Commander Major General Amir Eshel, Hertzl of IDF Military Intelligence, and Pardo of Mossad will develop and present a plan for him that displays a high level of military acumen and creativity. In April 2015, the IAF gained experience in coping with the S-300 by deploying 10 F-16I Sufa fighter jets to participate in the annual exercise of the Hellenic [Greek] Air Force entitled INIOXOS-2015. The Hellenic Armed Forces deploys the S-300PMU-1 on the Island of Crete. During the exercise, IAF pilots had the opportunity to prepare for a potential mission in which they may be required to attack Iranian nuclear facilities by flying against those S-300s. The IAF jets came from 4 units: 201 Squadron, “The One” from Ramon Airbase; 253 Squadron, “The Negev” from Ramon Airbase; 107 Squadron, “The Knights of the Orange Tail” from Hatzerim Airbase; and, 119 Squadron “The Bat” from Ramon Airbase. They were accompanied on at least one mission by their commander, Eshel. As a result of its participation in INIOXOS-2015, the IAF collected important data on the intricacies of flying against the S-300. During simulated attacks on ground targets, the IAF pilots successfully tested and modified evasion tactics versus the system. Ad utrumque paratus. (Ready for anything!)
In response to orders to remove what Israel’s political leaders may perceive as an existential threat to their people, IAF pilots would be willing to fly into Iran to destroy its nuclear program to the best of their ability. They will hardly wither under some thought that they are flying a “suicide mission.” The pilots know their duty to Israel; they are willing to make sacrifices. That is something IAF commanders and the pilots’ families know very well.
The Way Forward
In spite of its state sponsorship of terrorism and, Iran is not the sole point source of the world’s evils. (There is also the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, al-Qaeda, North Korea, and others.) Yet, Iran’s mordant behavior on the world stage, as well as its past surreptitious behavior regarding the research and development of military nuclear capability cannot be dismissed. Netanyahu has implored US officials to surmount what they see concerning Iran. His March 3rd speech to the US Congress was designed as a wake-up call to those who do not realize the nuclear negotiations are a sweet illusion that will only lead to heartache. He views actions Iran has taken despite past declarations that it would never build a nuclear bomb as instructive. Netanyahu no doubt would feel indescribable joy to hear the US would engage in military action against Iran with Israel. However, absent any extraordinarily egregious act by Iran against the US, that will not happen.
Regarding military action by Israel, Golda Meir once said, “We don’t thrive on military acts. We do them because we have to, and thank God we are efficient.” Netanyahu responded to statements Obama made during his June 1st Channel 2 interview by warning again that a prospective deal would pave the way for Iran to attain a nuclear arsenal. Netanyahu is experienced enough to know the importance of prudence in decision making. Undoubtedly, in his view, he has used sufficient prudence. He is not the type to engage in an agonizing debate about military action. Netanyahu’s actual intentions are unknown, and this analysis is written in the abstract. Nonetheless, he appears ready to use military force. He has not hesitated to use force against Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria. Although the Israeli Prime Minister turned back from military action against Iran in 2010, he will unlikely turn back a second time. Whether a decision by Netanyahu to attack Iran would be right or wrong might only be determined in the skies over Iran. Carpent tua poma nepotes. (Your descendents will pluck your fruit.)