By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Should the Israelis attack Iran, they would probably focus strikes on select nuclear facilities while trying to avoid killing civilians en masse or crippling the oil sector.
Past operations by Israel, such as the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak atomic reactor and a similar strike against Syria in 2007, suggest a strategy of one-off pinpoint raids, due both to military limitations and a desire to avoid wider war.
“It (Israel) has the capability to get there, and it has the capability to do serious damage to the Iranian nuclear program,” said Sam Gardiner, a retired U.S. air force colonel who has run war games for various Washington agencies and academic forums.
Israel remains publicly committed to the U.S.-led big power strategy of diplomacy and punitive sanctions to get the Iranians to curb their uranium enrichment and ensure it is for peaceful purposes only.
But the specter of unilateral Israeli strikes resurfaced with the publication on Tuesday of charges by U.N. inspectors of a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear project.
Israel lacks heavy long-range air force bombers, but its advanced F-15 and F-16 warplanes could hit sites in western Iran and further inland with air-to-air refueling and by using stealth technology to overfly hostile Arab nations.
Israel attacked Iraq and Syria before their alleged nuclear weapons projects had yielded fissile material that could end up as toxic debris. Similarly, analysts say, it would try to avoid an Iranian death toll that would fuel public calls for revenge.
A 2009 simulation at the Brookings Institution in Washington theorized that Israel, intent on halting or hobbling what the West suspects is Tehran’s covert quest for the means to make atomic weaponry, would launch a sneak pre-emptive attack on half-a-dozen nuclear sites in Iran.
Israel would not want to risk drawing in Iranian allies like Hezbollah, Hamas or Syria, especially with political upheaval shaking U.S.-aligned Gulf Arabs and Egypt. Israel’s armed forces are geared for brief border wars, not prolonged open conflict.
“Israel would most likely begin efforts to control escalation immediately after the strike,” said Gardiner, who posits Iranian retaliation could compel the United States — perhaps by Israeli design — to weigh in with its superior arms.
Facing recrimination from allies like the United States, Israel might argue the strike “created a terrific opportunity for the West to pressure Iran, weaken it, and possibly even undermine the regime”, said the Brookings simulation summary.
Aircraft are not the only means at Israel’s disposal.
It could also launch ballistic Jericho missiles with conventional warheads at Iran, according to a 2009 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Israel’s three German-built Dolphin submarines are believed to be capable of carrying conventional and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. They would have to transit through Egypt’s Suez Canal — as one did in 2009 — to reach the Gulf.
Elite foot soldiers might be deployed to spot targets and possibly launch covert attacks. Far-flying drones could assist in surveillance and possibly drop bombs of their own.
Israel has also been developing “cyber warfare” capabilities and could use this together with other sabotage by Mossad spies on the ground.
Israel would be loath to hit Iranian energy assets, like oil production and shipping facilities. This could stoke a spike in oil prices, turning world opinion against Israel while alienating the Iranian dissident movement.
The same would follow a large Iranian death toll, though civilian infrastructure might not be spared.
Gardiner said the Israelis, like the U.S. air force during the Serbia campaign of 1999, might fry Iran’s electricity grids by dropping carbon fibers on its exposed power lines.
“Israel knows that an attack on Iran, no matter how much evidence to show that Iran is on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons that could kill large numbers of Israelis if it chooses, would cause an international outcry,” said Richard Kemp, a retired British army colonel who has studied Israeli doctrines.
“It is very much in Israel’s interest to take every possible precaution to make it as precise and effective as possible (and) do everything to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties.”
But escalation might be impossible to avoid.
Should Iran retaliate with Shehab missile launches against Tel Aviv, for example, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would find it hard not to strike back. It would need outside assurances that the Shehab salvoes would stop — say, through a U.S. military enlistment against Iran, or a truce.
After losing the tactical edge of the initial sneak attack, Israeli forces would find it hard to keep up precision strikes.
Iran would be on alert for hostile warplanes, submarines and commandos. Iraq, Turkey or Saudi Arabia — countries which a 2006 study by the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology envisaged Israeli warplanes overflying en route to Iran — would shut down their air space.
The Israeli public would chafe at losing troops and living in bomb shelters. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in rare remarks on such a sensitive subject, said on Tuesday he saw the home front suffering “maybe not even 500 dead”.
In such a situation, Israel might rely increasingly on “stand-off” weaponry such as the Jerichos, which Jane’s missile experts believe are accurate only to around 1,000 yards (meters). This could mean more damage to Iran’s civilian infrastructure, including the lifeblood energy sector.