A Tough Tussle

Written by S. M. Hali  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Could a US-Israeli military airstrike on Iran trigger another war on South Asian soil?

The war of words between Iran and Israel has been heating up with Israel threatening the use of preemptive strikes to take out the Iranian nuclear project before Iran allegedly crosses the nuclear threshold. President Obama has been prescribing caution, trying to rein in trigger-happy Israel. On June 1981, Israel conducted Operation Babylon in a surprise air strike that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) southeast of Baghdad. On September 6, 2007, Israel’s attack on Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear facility nipped the Syrian nuclear program in the bud. Media reports indicate that Israel attempted attacks on the Pakistani nuclear facility too when it was in the budding phase but did not succeed owing to the vigilance of the Pakistan Armed Forces.

President Obama’s March 2013 visit to Israel was his first overseas tour in his second term. While there, the U.S. President did not mince his words when he blatantly announced that the allies are united, rather than divided, over the need to halt Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.

Obama has been walking a tightrope as far as the Iranian nuclear program is concerned. On one hand he has endeavored to keep the Israelis from directly attacking Iran for fear of being involved in a third war in quick succession after having paid a heavy toll through its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other, he did give his presidential nod to clandestine operations to thwart the Iranian nuclear program. David Sanger, in his book Confront and Conceal reveals that the U.S., through a cyber attack operation codenamed “Olympic Games” infected Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, in a bid to slow down the Iranian nuclear program. Another proposal was to launch a “clandestine” military strike to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities like the ones against Iraq and Syria. But a covert strike against Iran is much riskier than the one targeting Syria because Iran is militarily stronger and is certain to retaliate by striking Israeli and American targets in the Middle East.

Obama’s visit to Israel may have renewed the urgency among the Israeli leaders over Iran’s nuclear program as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deadline for Iran to withdraw its nuclear plans is also closing in. Where former heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies view that any attack on Iran will be unsuccessful and counter-productive, Prime Minister Netanyahu thinks otherwise and is adamant to carry out his threat.

The original goal of the Iranian nuclear program was to build nuclear power plants in order to produce 23,000 megawatts of electrical power, maintaining it has the right to enrich uranium, both for nuclear power plants and for making medical isotopes, which require fuel enriched to a fissile purity of 20 percent.

But the U.S. and its allies are concerned that 20-percent purity is a major step towards producing weapons-grade uranium and that Tehran is covertly developing weapons capability; accusations that Iran denies. The big question is whether Israel will undertake such an assault operation targeting Iranian nuclear facility. The father of Iran’s nuclear program, Akbar Etemad, now in his 80s and currently residing in Paris says there is no way out of current deadlock between western powers and the Islamic Republic. He opines that neither the U.S. nor Israel are in a position to attack Iran.

Talks between Iran and six world powers - the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany - are to resume early next month in a further attempt to strike a deal over Iranian nuclear aspirations.

Meanwhile pragmatism has set in and Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has decided to keep Iran’s nuclear program within the limits demanded by Israel for now. Senior U.S, European and Israeli officials believe this move is designed to avert an international crisis during an Iranian election year. U.S. and European officials have been concerned that Mr. Khamenei might challenge Israel and the U.S. over the nuclear issue to consolidate his political position. Mr. Khamenei’s approach is placing the Obama administration and its allies in a delicate strategic position, possibly constraining their response to Iran’s nuclear program. U.S., European and Israeli officials have described 2013 as the “critical” year in Iran’s nuclear program, which has been seen as a reference to the possible use of military force.

The U.S. is also facing a threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program, with Washington and Pyongyang engaged in heightened military threats. North Korea defiantly conducted its third nuclear weapons test in February.

The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in late December that Tehran had amassed 232 kilograms of uranium enriched to the 20% level but almost 100 kilograms of that amount is being converted into fuel plates to power Tehran’s research reactor. Fissile material in this form is difficult to use in a weapons program. “Based on the latest IAEA report, Iran appears to be limiting its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium by converting a significant portion of it to oxide,” said a senior U.S. official working on Iran. “But that could change at any moment.” Iran may physically lack the potential to deal with a joint Israeli-U.S. attack but it definitely has the pluck to survive and counterattack. Because of its strategic location, Iran is in a position to blockade the free flow of fuel to the west through the Strait of Hormuz.

It is expected that both the UN as well as the U.S. will be able to restrain Israel from attacking Iran. In the eventuality of an Israeli-Iran war, the South Asian region will get embroiled in the conflict. Pakistan, which has deep relations with Iran but also prefers to maintain positive relations with the U.S., will endeavor to keep the war off its backyard. The next few weeks are crucial in thwarting the war between Israel and Iran and intense diplomatic activity is merited to keep the warring factions at bay. 

Group Captain (R) Sultan M. Hali, now a practicing journalist, writes for print media, produces documentaries and hosts a TV talk show. He is currently based in Islamabad.

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