JERUSALEM—Saudi Arabia has informed U.S. officials that it will intercept any Israeli aircraft attempting to reach Iran through Saudi airspace, Tel Aviv daily Yediot Ahronot reported yesterday.
The information was relayed to Israel, the paper said. In 1981, Israeli warplanes passed through Saudi airspace to destroy the nuclear reactor being built by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. The eight attack planes were provided cover by Israeli fighter jets.
Current defense minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak said he had received no such information from American officials. "Saudi Arabia is a sovereign country and makes its own decisions," he told Israel Radio. "But the matter is too important to be decided by reports like this."
Two years ago, the Times of London quoted a U.S. defense source in the Persian Gulf area as saying that Saudi leadership had decided "to look the other way" if Israeli planes passed through its airspace on the way to Iran. "They’ve already conducted tests to make sure their own jets aren’t scrambled and missile defenses aren’t activated so that no one gets shot down," the official was reported as saying. The paper also quoted a Saudi source as saying, "We will let them [the Israelis] through and see nothing."
Saudi officials at the time denied the report. "It is illogical to allow the Israeli occupying force, with whom Saudi Arabia has no relations whatsoever, to use its airspace," said Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, the Saudi envoy to the U.K. There have been periodic reports over the years of Israeli security officials making secret visits to Riyadh to confer with counterparts.
The timing of the current report is likely connected to recent hints from Jerusalem, and concern in Washington, that Israel might be planning a strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities in the near future. According to a report last week in the Israeli media, Washington has told Israel that the U.S. itself will strike at Iran if it does not halt its nuclear program—but only in another year and a half. Some Israeli officials suggested that the Americans may have even encouraged the Saudis to issue their current warning in order to make a unilateral Israeli air strike more difficult.
If Israel does plan to strike Iran, it has other options. The northern route would take Israeli fighters through Syrian and Turkish airspace—but, given current tensions with Turkey, the Israelis would probably prefer to avoid it. The more likely, and shortest, route would be through Jordanian and Iraqi airspace. Jordan does not have the air defenses to challenge an Israeli overflight, and Iraq’s air defenses are not yet in place. There is, however, political danger if this route is chosen since it could lead to a popular uprising against the regime in Jordan.
The logistics of any Israeli attack are daunting. Experts believe Israel would send at least 100 warplanes in any attack, many armed with bunker-buster bombs. Although Israel has a small number of aerial tankers, only planes heading for the most distant targets could be refueled. There are more than a dozen sites in Iran where nuclear activity is carried out. Israel would presumably only hit a small number of them.
Emily Chorley, a nuclear expert at Jane’s, told CNN that there are four primary targets. Two of them are on the surface and "relatively vulnerable to attack". However, two other possible targets, the nuclear enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordo, are deeply buried and difficult to hit.
In his interview with Israel Radio, Barak confirmed a report in yesterday’s Ha’aretz that American intelligence experts now hold a more alarming view of Iran’s nuclear progress than the National Intelligence Estimate in 2007, which said Tehran had suspended its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. "As far as we know," said Barak, "it brings the American assessment much closer to ours and makes the Iranian issue even more urgent."