Israeli military preparations for a strike on Iran’s dispersed and buried nuclear sites have been underway for over a decade, experts say.
But while Tehran scrambles to move its nuclear operations further underground, the Jewish state is fast approaching a critical decision: pull the trigger on military action soon—and without the hope of U.S. assistance—or risk losing the opportunity to set back Tehran’s drive for nuclear arms.
The Israelis "have been spending a good part of their defense budget over the last decade purchasing the equipment necessary to carry out such an operation," said Michael Eisenstadt, a retired Army reservist who served in the Pentagon and at U.S. Central Command in the early days of the Afghanistan war.
But for all its military capabilities, Israel has a relatively small fleet of fighter jets, which means it must select its targets wisely or convince the U.S. to provide backup, a scenario that most experts view as unlikely.
"Israel’s military capacity is obviously limited compared with ours, so it would need to choose targets more carefully and limit the number," said Elliott Abrams, a senior National Security Council advisor to former President George W. Bush. "The window closes later for the U.S. on the point when a military attack is no longer likely to be a success in destroying a lot of the Iranian nuclear program."
Experts say that if the Israelis are to strike, they need to do it soon, do it smartly, and not count on the Obama administration for help.
"If they’re going to do it, they’re doing it with the assumption they’re the only ones launching [an attack] and they need to get it right themselves," said Eisenstadt, who serves as the director of the military and security studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It would be folly to rely on the possibility of the U.S. intervening to snatch their coals from the fire."
Military experts both here and abroad believe that Israel will rely on a narrowly tailored strike that could potentially cripple Iran’s nuclear operation for anywhere from one-to-three years.
"It will be a surgical strike aimed purely at the nuclear operation," explained Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom (ret.), former director of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Strategic Planning Division. "We will never cover all of the [Iranian] program because it is spread out and Iran is far. The attack will be focused on the critical nodes of the Iranian program."
Iran currently has at least six major nuclear research facilities spread across the country. Israel is likely to focus its attacks on four of these sites, two of which are burrowed deep beneath the ground, experts say.
The above ground sites are located in Arak and Isfahan, in the northwest portion of Iran.
At these sites, the Israelis "could use regular conventional munitions," such as precision-guided bombs and other air-to-ground explosives, explained Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. These unconcealed sites are "well within in Israel’s capability to destroy."
Like others interviewed, Kroenig speculated that the Israeli Air Force would employ its powerful fleet of F-15I and F-16I fighter jets, both of which are modified versions of American-made aircraft.
While not the ideal planes for this type of mission, the Israelis successfully utilized the same jets during 2007’s Operation Orchard, in which they destroyed Syria’s burgeoning nuclear reactor.
Most problematic, however, is the 1,240-mile tract of terrain that separates Israel and Iran. Necessarily, fuel will be a central consideration in any attack plan.
"You need a lot of air refueling and the capabilities of Israel are limited," said Brom, who is currently a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.
Still, the Israelis are known for their military ingenuity, and are rumored to be researching workarounds.
For instance, the Israelis could refuel their planes sometime after takeoff, or during the return trip from Iran, according to Eisenstadt.
"The Israelis would do a lot of reconfiguring of their aircraft" in order to achieve maximum fuel efficiency, Eisenstadt said. In addition, the IAF is said to have rehearsed on-the-ground refueling techniques and experimented with topping-off their plane’s fuel tanks until takeoff, he added.
Another alternative, he said, is to clandestinely establish refueling stations in eastern Jordan or uninhabited regions of Saudi Arabia, though others view this option as unlikely.
Due to these fuel concerns, Israel would only send a handful of jets to target Iran’s most sensitive nuclear strongholds.
"One of the problems they have is there are potentially a large number of targets and a small number of Israeli aircraft," Eisenstadt noted. "So they have to be ruthless in deciding where they can get the biggest payoff."
The Israelis are also limited by their arsenal, which includes a small number of American-made GBU-28 hard target bombs, otherwise known as "bunker busters."
While some doubt the overall effectiveness of these bombs, at least one observer noted that success doesn’t hinge upon the total annihilation of Iran’s underground facilities.
"A lot of people will focus a little too much on the Iranian facilities buried under mountains, but the Israelis don’t need to destroy those facilities," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "They only need to destroy the entrances to them," creating a "multimillion dollar tomb for the scientists working inside them."
But for all its military limitations, Israeli leaders appear to be in an unprecedented state of panic over Iran—and they have not shied away from publicly discussing their fears.
"Iran keeps advancing its capabilities and keeps developing its very ambitious nuclear program, the basis of which is to get nuclear power," Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Israel’s director of Military Intelligence, said during the Herzliya Conference, an annual national security conference in Israel. "Iran has enough nuclear material sufficient for four bombs."
"Some way or another we have to stop the Iranian nuclear project," Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon told attendees at the Herzliya conference. The West "should be determined to take action in the next few months to stop the Iranian progress."
A nuclear-armed Iran, he added, is "a nightmare to the free world, to the western world, to western civilization" and it would lead to "nuclear chaos" throughout the region.
However, Ya’alon doubted whether the West—mainly America—has the "political stomach" to back a credible military option against Iran.
"As long as the Iranians are not convinced there is a political stomach to execute such an attack they will continue" to pursue arms. "Today, the Iranian regime thinks this stomach doesn’t exist, whether it be a military attack as a last resort or the [economic] sanctions to the full extent."
Following an Israeli strike, it would just be a matter of time before the Iranians respond by launching what experts believe could be a combination of overt and covert attacks on the Jewish state and American interests in the region—though experts wondered just how far the regime is willing to go.
"Iran has said they would assume the U.S. is complicit in any attack [on its facilities] and would attack American bases in the Gulf," noted Abrams, who currently serves as a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at CFR. "But I don’t think they’re going to do that. If you believe that, you believe the regime is suicidal."
Instead, Iran could order its allies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel.
In Lebanon, the terror group Hezbollah has a large stockpile of weapons that it could use to attack Israel’s northern border. Similarly, terrorist sympathizers in the West Bank and elsewhere could fire rockets and mortars at Israeli towns.
"All of these responses are possible," said INSS’ Brom. "But for every one, [Iran] will pay dearly. The U.S. will not stay indifferent" if Iran attacks its interests in the region.
"Iran will have to take all of theses into consideration, and basically, I think the Iranian leadership is very rational," Brom added. "They’re very good at making threats, but when deciding what to do, they are quite cautious."