The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.
By Dr. Ehud Eilam
/ Published November 23, 2021
Iran seeks to produce nuclear weapons. Israel and the United States wish to prevent Iran from reaching its goal. Therefore, during the current negotiations with Iran—let alone if they fail—the United States and Israel should deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It requires delivering Israel a certain arsenal. If eventually Israel has no choice but to attack, then it will need US military and diplomatic support to deter Iran and Hezbollah from escalating the fight.
Returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?
There are other highly important issues such as the Covid-19 Pandemic. The United States has to deal with Russia, China, Iran, and hot spots such as North Korea.1 The Director of US National Intelligence claimed in mid-April 2021 that Iran presents “a continuing threat to US and allied interests in the region.”2 The biggest problem is that Iran wants to produce nuclear weapons. In such a case, Saudi Arabia will get a nuclear weapon too and Turkey and Egypt might do the same.3 The Middle East will become much more dangerous, including US troops who are deployed there.
The agreement about Iran’s nuclear project, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA), was signed on 14 July 2015. The Trump administration pulled out of the JCPOA on 8 May 2018. Iran did not do the same and later breached the JCPOA. Israel has been opposing the JCPOA since it allowed Iran to both keep its nuclear program and to continue with its missile program and also to support its proxies against Israel. All that is very concerning for Israel because over the years the Iranian regime had repeatedly announced its desire to destroy Israel. The biggest problem for Israel is Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel sees as an existential threat. Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned on 17 June 2021 that “all options are on the table” regarding Israel’s preparedness to carry out a raid on Iran’s nuclear sites
The Biden administration seeks to negotiate with Iran. Israel can support not causing an escalation or attack to Iran.4 However, there should be a military option. The goal is to deter Iran so it will stop breaching the JCPOA while urging Iran to accept serious constraints. Currently, the talks face difficulties. Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner, might make it more complicated to reach an agreement.
In early February, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, "If Iran chooses to narrow the space for diplomacy by confronting the United States, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that he will be prepared to defend U.S. troops and vital interests, including with appropriate force."5 However, the Biden administration probably would not consider bombing Iran’s nuclear sites even if the talks with Iran collapse.
Presenting a military option during the negotiations can serve the United States. Furthermore, if there is a dead-end and Iran rushes to produce nuclear weapons then deterring Iran will be crucial. It could be done officially or not, but it must be reliable. Iran will retaliate after a US strike in Iran, but it might not necessarily lead to war. Nevertheless, the Biden administration will not want to take this risk and might prefer other options to deter Iran such as relying on Israel in this matter.
How Israel Can Deter Iran
There are close ties between Israel and its American patron. A Gallup poll from late March 2021 revealed that 75 percent of Americans view Israel positively.6 On 10 April, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Israel and reaffirmed that US commitment to Israel is “ironclad.”7 On 13 April, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan ensured Israeli officials that Iran will never hold a nuclear weapon.8 There are certain disputes between the two countries on the best way to handle Iran. However, in the past, they managed to overcome various disagreements and they can do it again.
It is possible to deter Iran in such a way that Iran will accept constraints not only on its nuclear program but in other areas as well, such as its missile project. Yet putting too much pressure on Iran might cause a crisis and even ignite a war. Israel might be willing to take this risk due to the danger Iran imposes on Israel, but the Biden administration opposes a war. Even if the war might only be between Israel and Iran, it could potentially drag the United States into it. Therefore, to reduce the probability of war, Israel and the United States will have to deter Iran only in regard to Iran’s nuclear program.
There has been an ongoing covert war between Israel and Iran, which includes all kinds of actions and strikes. On 12 April 2021, Iran accused Israel of sabotaging the Natanz nuclear site, a key facility in Iran’s nuclear program.9 If Iran continues to refuse to be flexible during the talks, or if the negotiations fail, the Biden administration might rely on imposing sanctions. The Biden administration might also allow covert actions, aiming at deterring Iran from producing nuclear weapons. Yet it might not be enough.
The chief of general staff of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) Lieutenant-General Aviv Kohavi mentioned in late January 2021 that the IDF prepares “a number of operational plans, in addition to those already in place,” in regard to Iran.10 It could serve in deterring Iran from producing nuclear weapons.
The United States is committed to keeping Israel’s qualitative military edge.11 Israel had assimilated some of the finest American weapon systems, mostly fighter—bombers such as F-15 and F-16 and, since 2016, the F- 35.12 There were reports that Israel asked to receive the F-22 fighter, yet there are severe constraints in this matter.13 One of them is that the aircraft is no longer in production. Actually, the F-22 is not Israel’s most urgent need. The F-22 is built for air-to-air combat; a field the Israeli Air Force (IAF) already enjoys a clear edge over its Iranian counterpart. Iran’s obsolete air force, with its old Mig-29 and F-14, are no match to Israel’s elite fighters. The IAF can defeat the Iranian air force without US support during a raid on Iran’s nuclear sites. Israel, therefore, does not require the F-22, as part of building deterrence against Iran, to convince the latter not to produce nuclear weapons.
In 1981, Israel destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. In 2007 Israel annihilated Syria’s nuclear reactor.14 Unlike in Syria and Iraq, in Iran such a mission will be much more difficult. The distance to the targets, from Israel, is much longer compared to reaching Iraq or Syria. In Iran, there are also several nuclear sites, not only one, as it was in Iraq and Syria. In order to gain surprise, those targets will have to be attacked at the same time, which requires sending quite a large force. However, Iran will also have to split its forces to defend all those objectives. In addition, the IAF has much better capability than it had in 2007, let alone in 1981. Nevertheless, the IAF needs US assistance in several fields to create a reliable deterrence against Iran.
Some Iranian nuclear sites are well-fortified. The IAF has US bunker-buster bombs—the GBU-28. However, those bombs might not be powerful enough to crack Iran’s highly protected nuclear sites such as Fordo. For that, the IAF requires the MOP (Massive Ordnance Penetrator), a huge American bomb.15 In October 2020, there was a bill in the US Congress calling the Department of Defense to “consider selling Israel bunker-buster bombs capable of penetrating heavily fortified underground facilities.”16 Dennis Ross claimed in July 2021 that the Biden administration must make it clear to Iran “the costs of pursuing a threshold capability.” To do so, the Biden administration should consider giving Israel the MOP.17
Israel’s fighter-bombers can’t carry the MOP because it requires heavy bombers, which the IAF does not possess. The IAF needs to obtain from the United States a strategic bomber. Israel will not get the B-2, but the B-52 is old enough, having been in service since the mid-1950s. This factor will make it easier for the United States to provide the B-52 to Israel. Another option, although a very problematic one, might be if the IAF uses its C-130J, a transport plane, yet one that might be able to carry the MOP to Iran. It will be a very dangerous operation, but the IAF can take this risk since the threat to Israel is so high.
Having the B-52 and at least the MOP in Israeli hands might deter Iran from producing a nuclear weapon so Israel might not have to attack at all. Despite that, the Biden administration might refuse to deliver Israel the MOP, suspecting Israel might attack, due to its fear in this matter or because of miscalculations. However, without the MOP, Israel might have no choice but to attack with the bombs it has and hope it might be sufficient. In such a case, Iran’s nuclear sites might not absorb much damage. The IAF can strike them again later but this is not a good outcome for both Israel and the United States.
The IAF does not have to handle the entire Iranian air defense, only the Iranian forces that might jeopardize Israeli planes. The IAF conducted hundreds of sorties against a strong air defense inside Syria since 2012 almost without absorbing any losses. Only one time, on 10 February 2018, an Israeli F-16 was shot down. The IAF and the Syrian air defense can learn vital lessons from their clashes. Syria can share this knowledge with Iran since the two are allies, and Iran might have learned some lessons from the aerial campaign in Syria. This will serve both sides during an Israeli raid in Iran.
Iran’s air defense has the S-300—a sophisticated antiaircraft system.18 The IAF might be able to handle the S-300 with kinetic strikes and electronic and cyber warfare without US support. The IAF, in suppressing air defense and for carrying out other missions in Iran as well, will use not only fighter-bombers but also command and control aircraft and drones. The IAF can probably create deterrence in this field—i.e., convince Iran its air defense is not capable enough for Iran to rely on in protecting the production of nuclear weapons.
The IAF is looking to get the US KC-46 tankers.19 They are badly needed since the IAF will have to fly more than a thousand miles just to reach Iran. Now the IAF has only the aging Ram (Boeing 707) former civilian aircraft adapted for aerial refueling. However, the KC-46 will not arrive in Israel soon. Therefore, Israel can approach its new allies, Arab Gulf states. The latter, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE that fear Iran, might allow the IAF to cross their air space and even to land there in some remote site for refueling. The IAF can also fly over Iraq to shorten the distance to the targets and save fuel. Iraq, which is under strong Iranian influence, is not friendly to Israel, but Iraq’s air force is weak so it can’t pose a serious threat to the IAF. The cooperation with Gulf Arab states, and since Iraq is not an obstacle, will help Israel to reach Iran which will be part of deterring Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Deterrence During a Raid
Despite all the effort to deter Iran from producing nuclear weapons, it might not work. Israel might have to attack Iran’s nuclear sites as a last resort. It will require US military and diplomatic support.
During a raid in Iran, the IAF might lose some aircraft. Israeli aircrews, who will have to abandon their aircraft near Iran, might be forced to parachute into Iraq or the Gulf waters. Israel might require US forces who are based there to assist in rescuing them. It might deter Iranian troops or Iran’s proxies from trying to capture those Israeli aircrews, but it could also put US troops in danger. Besides this risk, there is also the US desire to avoid any action that will be seen as an official US involvement in the Israeli raid, even if it means only saving the lives of Israelis troops.
Iran can retaliate by conducting terror and cyberattacks against Israeli and US objectives, blaming the United States for assisting Israel in the raid even if it is not true.20 Iran can also fire its long-range missiles, drones, and cruise missiles.21 The IDF trained in this matter, including with the US military, in the 'Jenifer Cobra' exercises.22 Sending US troops to protect Israel from Iranian missiles is clearly a defensive act, but it can be considered as supporting the Israeli attack on Iran. It will also put US troops in harm’s way, and it will not deter Iran.
If Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear sites, it will serve the interests of many states. Nevertheless, Israel might face severe international criticism, such as in the UN. Israel will have to handle it, particularly in the Security Council. The Biden administration might officially oppose the Israeli raid, but it can still prevent a harsh resolution against Israel, or else Israel might look vulnerable. If the United States has Israel’s back it can help to deter Iran from escalating the fight.
Hezbollah is a powerful non-state actor, an Iranian proxy, based near Israel in Lebanon. Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets and missiles that might be fired if Israel bombs Iran.23 IDF will respond by launching a massive offensive. The IDF carried out in mid-February 2021 an exercise, aimed against Hezbollah, as part of a buildup that has been going on since the last war between them in 2006.24 The IDF will rely on its own forces, but due to the scale and intensity of such a war, the IDF might require US assistance mostly in getting ammunition. This US aid might help in deterring Hezbollah from continuing the war.
All in all, Israel and the United States can deter Iran from producing nuclear weapons by having a military option. It will be required in several situations. First of all, it can urge Iran to negotiate an agreement that will make Iran accept major constraints. Second, if diplomacy fails, deterrence should be used to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons. It requires delivering Israel the B-52 and at least the MOP. In some fields, the IAF can manage without US support. Third, if Israel has no choice but to attack then US military and diplomatic support will be needed to deter both Iran and Hezbollah from escalating the fight.
Dr. Ehud Eilam
Dr. Ehud Eilam has been dealing with and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. He served in the Israeli military and later worked for the Israeli Ministry of Defense as a researcher. He has a PhD and has published six books in the US/UK.
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