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Likelihood and consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran

William Polk

April 19, 2009

Dear Friends, 

       A year ago, when terribly worried about the possibility of an attack on Iran, with disastrous consequences for Iran, of course,[1] but also for nearly all the rest of the world[2] and certainly including America, I was bombarding you and others with analyses and warnings.  

For a while, it appeared that I was like the little boy who cried wolf.  As in the story, the “wolf” – the prospect of war -- was actually there: about half of the American navy was positioned along Iran’s frontier; hundreds of cruise missiles were aimed at its nuclear sites, factories, military camps and cities; hundreds of aircraft were on alert at bases surrounding Iran in Qatar, Iraq, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean; other USAF were primed to deliver bombs directly from  the continental United States;[3]  amphibious assault ships, equipped with helicopters and fast hovercraft, sent to the Gulf in 2007 to be ready to “insert” troops within hours of a decision to attack; covert agents and special forces were meanwhile deployed in Iran;[4]  drone aircraft, gathering intelligence and “also employed as a tool for intimidation” had been overflying Iran since 2004;[5] and the Bush administration was issuing a stream of warnings that “all options were on the table.”[6]


(Please forgive me for extensive allusion to sources; I do so because many of the items I will discuss are either controversial or little known.)


Of course, having troops and equipment “at the ready” does not necessarily mean that they will be used.   But history shows us that it does make their use more likely.  The choice gives rise to the common military expression, “use it or lose it.” Moreover, the official US military objective in the Middle East, established by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, certified by Vice President Dick Cheney and approved, indeed amplified, by the President was the overthrow of the Iranian government.  This has been a persistent theme since the 1990s of American Neoconservative advisers to the White House, the Defense Department and the CIA as well as more visible and often clamorous commentators in the media and pontificating and often vociferous strategists in a number of policy institutes and foundations.

It was not just Americans who were talking about and preparing to attack Iran:  year after year an attack on Iran was perhaps the most common subject in Israeli political discussion, in the Israeli media and in Israeli diplomatic and lobbying encounters with American officials and legislators.  Moreover,  America had supplied Israel with fighter-bombers (the F-16i and the F-15i) with sufficient range to reach at least some Iranian sites and with the munitions (the GBU-28 and the more powerful GBU-39 “bunker-buster” bombs) designed for just the sort of attack planned against Iran.[7]

  In June 2002, the Israelis tested the performance of 100 of their F-16i and F-15i aircraft in a well-publicized mock attack carried out over the Mediterranean Sea.[8]   What this war game made clear was that while the American-supplied aircraft had the range to reach at least one site, other necessary aircraft (including rescue helicopters) did not and would have to be refueled in the air or at stopovers.[9]

  Meanwhile, since Israeli and American intelligence had identified more than 1,200 suspected nuclear and other military sites,[10] it was clear that a single Israeli strike even with 100 aircraft would not suffice.  Either multiple raids, more aircraft or nuclear weapons would be  required to accomplish the mission the Israelis had set for themselves.  They nevertheless have continued to assert their determination and ability to carry out an assault if the United States does not bring the presumed Iranian nuclear-weapon program to a halt.


These events, massing of forces and repeated statements convinced me that the danger of war during 2008 constituted an unacceptable risk to America.  Along with a number – but not a very great number – of others, I hammered away at consequences of this drift into war in every forum I could reach. 

Subsequently, in November 2008, the US National Intelligence Council dropped its own bombshell.  In a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the 16 federal intelligence agencies declared “with high confidence” – that is, as the publication explains, “the judgments are based on high-qualilty information [making] it possible to render a solid judgment” -- that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years before:  “We judge with high confidence,” the NIE continued, “that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program…and We judge with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015.”[11] 

 Fortunately, perhaps because the NIE showed that the Bush administration’s frequently asserted justification for an attack on Iran was unsubstantiated, President Bush apparently came to agree in the final weeks of his administration that the danger posed by an attack was unacceptable.  He decided not to authorize an American military action. He also turned down an Israeli request for a “green light” to raid Iran. [12]   His decision was approved by NATO leaders including French President Sarkozy who said “an attack would be ‘a catastrophe’ [and] must be prevented.”[13]

 President Bush could order the USAF and the US Navy not to attack Iran, but, of course, he could not absolutely prevent the Israelis from carrying out an air raid.  His administration, as I have pointed out, had given them the required equipment, and they repeatedly asserted their determination to use it in precisely the situation President Bush had created, refusal by America to do what the Israeli government demanded, to destroy Iran’s capability to move toward nuclear weapons. What the Israeli Air Force lacked was a route, a flight path.

At this point, as Victorian novelists liked to say, “the plot thickened.”  Or it may have since there is so far (and may never be) concrete evidence.  But based on snippits of information and reasoning, it seems to be at least possible that an undisclosed aspect of the August 2008 crisis over Georgia may have involved an Israeli attempt to solve the dilemma of a flight path. Unlike Israel which has no common boarder with Iran and is at the extreme limit of Israeli aircraft range, Georgia is right next door.  If Israeli aircraft could be based there, they could relatively easily hit any site in Iran.  Farfetched? As the Israeli blog, ynet, reported on August 10, 2008, “The fighting which broke over the weekend between Russia and Georgia has brought Israel’s intense involvement in the region into the limelight.  This involvement includes the sale of advanced weapons to Georgia.”  (At the same time, Israel has also been selling its aircraft technology to Russia to enhance the performance of Russian fighter bombers.)  How, if at all, this complex set of moves fits into the Iran story is, as I say, obscure.  If it was part of a plan, the plan was not then effected. Unless or until we learn more, all one can say is that it is certainly intriguing.

 Another intriguing episode was the September 6, 2008 Israeli attack on an alleged nuclear site in Syria.[14]  The most logical explanation I can find for the attack, based on my own observations of RAF and USAF probes during the Cold war,  some of which I watched on radar on the Black Sea in 1963, was to get the Syrians to “light up” their radar air defenses.  That is what we were doing in in the Crimea and elsewhere to establish a usable flight plan into the Soviet Union. This ploy would have been useful to the Israelis only if they wanted to develop the option of overflying Syria.

 Overflying Syria, however, would not get Israeli aircraft to Iran.  They would still have to overfly American-controlled Iraqi airspace.  Would they be allowed to do so?  It is inconceivable that if planes of the Israeli Air Force appeared over Iraq on a mission against Iran the USAF would attempt to shoot them down.[15]  Consequently,  both the Bush and Obama administrations have made only ambiguous statements advising caution and expressing sympathy, not flat prohibitions or threats to cut military supply or other largess if Israel attacked.  In short, as one commentator put it, “sending mixed signals.”[16]

 In their attack on the Iraqi nuclear installation Oisraq in 1981, the Israelis overflew Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  They could presumably use the same route today if the Syrian route proved too dangerous.  But,  to avoid Iraqi airspace, they would have to swing far to the south, overflying Kuwait,  and this might require the use of tanker aircraft in which they are thought to be deficient.  The other route, over Turkey, would, similarly, be technically difficult and would probably be opposed by the Turks who maintain strategically important relationships with Iran.

In short, it would be difficult but not impossible for Israel to attack Iran.



The presumed danger, to which the Bush administration was reacting and to which the Israelis are today stridently proclaiming is that Iran is on the brink of acquiring a nuclear weapon.  Is this true?  The November 2008 NIE said no, but it also admitted “we do not know whether it (Iran) currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”  The Israelis believe they do.   If they do, how great a danger does their action pose?  Since World War II, no state has used nuclear weapons aggressively; all nuclear powers have regarded them solely as deterrents.  Nor has any state shared its weapons with non-governmental groups such as terrorists.  Iran would be unlikely to do so even if it had weapons.  And even if it actually acquired the materials to make a weapon, testing would be extremely difficult and impossible to hide. But,  if the potential acquisition by Iran of a nuclear weapon capability is a great danger, what can be done about it?  These are surely among the most important questions that the Obama administration must address.


I will address these questions in this paper,  but first I will discuss why the Iranians might wish to acquire a nuclear weapon.  Answering that question requires some insight into Iranian interpretation of American-Iranian relations and some discussion of the country’s cultural and political orientation.

 Beginning with the way “the other fellow” sees an  issue is not how we Americans usually address a problem.  We usually start at the other end: in this case, what the Iranians have done against America, what they are believed or are alleged to be doing and what they might do. 

Foremost among American grievances is that the Iranian regime, in violation of international law and diplomatic custom, sanctioned the seizure in 1979 of the United States embassy in Tehran and the taking as hostages of most of its staff.  The “hostage crisis” was probably the most important and certainly was the most emotional issue in that year’s presidental election.[17] The charge has been made and at least partly documented that on behalf of Ronald Reagan, William J. Casey, later head of the CIA, arranged that the hostages not be released before the election, thus denying Carter the political boost their release would have given his candidacy.  If this is true, it would have put the Iranian regime in position to blackmail the Reagan administration.  It is certain that after winning the election, the Reagan administration, seconded by Israel, secretly began dealing with Iran on more favorable terms in the so-called Iran-Contra affair.[18]  So to some extent Iran faded from the American hate list.   There were subsequent ugly events, including the terrorist car bomb attack on the American embassy annex in Beirut on October 23, 1983 that killed 241 American servicemen, which was partly blamed on Iranian influence,  but there were no direct government-to-government clashes.

Americans by and large have forgotten or, if they remember, wish to put aside their own actions against Iran.  The Iranians have not forgotten and have repeatedly brought them forward.  In brief summary, the actions they mention are, first,  the American overthrow of the first democratically elected government of Iran.  That happened in 1953 in a coup that was suggested by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) to then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and was carried out by the CIA under Kermit Roosevelt.[19]  The coup resulted in the reimposition of Muhammad Reza Shah whose repressive policies led ultimately to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. 

 The second action was American military assistance to Iraq in its war against Iran.  The US directly or indirectly supplied weapons, including cluster bombs, anthrax and equipment to manufacture poison gas, as well as battlefield intelligence to the Iraqis under Saddam Husain.  These donations assisted the Iraqis in killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians.[20]  In addition, America actually fought Iranian armed forces, sinking most of the Iranian navy.  Economically, America also took the leadership in imposing a quasi-blockade that caused great suffering in Iran.  Then, shortly after a visit by Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad, the United States removed Iraq from the “terrorist list” and added Iran. 

 The third action to which  the Iranian regime has pointed was the shooting down, in Iranian air space, on July 3, 1988 of an Iran Air civilian Airbus, thus killing 290 passengers, including 66 children,  and crew.  The US government agreed to pay $61.8 million in damages but refused to apologize and awarded the captain of the Cruiser USS Vincennes that fired the missile a medal.

 Despite these episodes, the Iranians both as individuals and as a government showed notable friendship for America and support for its policies. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, 60,000 Iranians observed a minute of silence in bustling Tehran and many thousands of others held candlelight vigils.[21]  The Iranian govenrment assisted the United States in its campaign against the Taliban and in the establishment of American-designated Afghan government[22]  and has employed about 20,000 troops and police, sustaining almost as many casualties as America suffered in Iraq, trying to interdict the drug trade. [23]   The Iranians also deported large numbers of suspected al-Qaida operatives and forced or won-over Afghan regional strong men to the American side.[24]  In these actions, Iran made major contributions to the achievement of America’s major objectives in its Afghan campaign.

Despite the opposition of their own “hawks,” successive Iranian government have made conciliatory gestures.[25]  For example in May 2003 then-President Muhammad Khatimi offered to open negotiations for a “grand bargain;”[26]  Prime Minister Ahmadinejad, although wary and at least verbally hostile,  made a comparable offer in May 2006 and has just repeated it to President Obama.  On April 7, 2009, he said he welcomed “honest” talks which he explained meant concrete actions rather than just words.[27]

 Contrarywise, the Bush administration repeated rebuffed Iranian gestures, ignored Iranian offers to negotiate differences[28]  and damned the Iranian leadership. [29]  President Bush categorized Iran in his January 2002 State of the Union address as a part of the “Axis of Evil.”  That terminology set the style of American-Iranian relations during the Bush administration as I have set out above.   What it also did was to force upon Iran’s leadership two “lessons:”

 The first lesson derived from the contrast between the American treatment of Iraq, which did not have a nuclear weapon, and North Korea which did:  Iraq was effectively destroyed as an independent state and its government overturned while North Korea was offered an aid program.  Iranian officials could hardly miss the point:  not having a bomb put them in mortal danger.   Iranians thought they were next on the list.[30]

The second moral was almost as important:  it was that once a country actually gets a bomb, it is safe. No country will attack a country that, in retaliation, can inflict “unacceptable” damage.  North Korea was the proof of that.

Moreover, the history of the nuclear age shows that once a country gets the bomb, it is quickly accepted by the other nuclear powers as a “member of the club.”[31]  India is a recent proof of this:  although it secretly acquired the weapon and did not join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (as Iran did), the Bush administration said, in effect, “we will make an exception – as we have done for Israel, which also has not joined Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – and share with you our nuclear technology.”[32]

 So what is it likely that Iran will do about these “lessons.”   Put another way,  what  do we know or what can we infer from what we know?



While serving as a Member of the Policy Planning Council, during which I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what dozens of other governments were trying to do, I learned that our ability to accomplish that task is severely limited.  Despite spending many billions of dollars on diplomatic encounters, intelligence gathering from friends and agents, interception and decoding of radio traffic, satellite imagery and even more recondite means, it was difficult to get the raw data.  But information collection was only the beginning of the problem.  The data had to be interpreted so that “appreciations” could be made of the current events and projections could be made into the future.

  In recent years, Americans have evolved two methods of accomplishing these tasks.  Both are flawed;  indeed, both have occasionally misled us into danger.  The first of these is the adaptation mathematicians have made of the German Army General Staff kriegspiel, the “war-game.”  Essentially the war-game sets out to show how the opponent will respond to an escalating series of “moves.”   It assumes that he will be guided by a balance sheet of potential profit and loss.  If he does not add them up accurately (as the mathematicians taught us to  say) he has “miscalculated.”  Gaming thus views the foreigner as a sort of accountant --  culturally disembodied, mathematically precise and governed by logic.  In short, we posit in him precisely those qualities that do not shape our actions.  So when we apply the lessons to “grand strategy” in our culturally diverse world, the results  of the war-game are nearly always misleading.

In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (during which I was a member of the “Crisis Management Committee”) I was ordered to participate in a sort of replay of that crisis; it was a war-game designed to press the events into nuclear conflict but not quite to nuclear war.  My colleagues on “Red Team” were some of America’s most senior military, intelligence and foreign affairs officers and we drew upon the most sensitive information available in the American government about the Soviet government.  We focused on an escalating crisis at the end of which we were informed that “Blue Team” had obliterated a Russian city.  How should we respond?  Do nothing, retaliate by “taking out” an American city or go to general war? 

  After careful consideration, we opted for general war, firing all our missiles to attempt to wipe out all American retaliatory capability and even the country.

The “umpire,” Thomas Schelling, an MIT mathematician and author of The Strategy of Conflict, called a halt to the game, saying that we had “misplayed,” and called a general meeting in the War Room of the Pentagon the next morning for what would have been in real life literally a postmortem.  Schelling  opened by saying that if we were right,  which of course we were not, America would have to give up the theory of deterrence.  Why had we acted in this irresponsible way?

  In response, we showed that Red Team went to general war because it had to.   If the leader of Red Team had done nothing, he almost certainly would have been regarded as a traitor and overthrown by his own military commanders; had he played tit-for-tat, obliterating, say, Dallas, what could an American president have done?  He also could not “turn the other cheek.”  He would have had to reply.  In turn, Russia would have had to react.  And so on.  Thus, despite the catastrophe it meant for both nations, neither government could have found a place or time to halt the fateful process.  In short, whatever the “interest of state” (which clearly called for avoiding war even if in humiliation), the “interest of government” compelled actions that were not shaped by the same category of “logic.”  No previous war-game had predicted this outcome.  Indeed, the dozens or hundreds “played” over the past decade, had all predicted, as did Schelling, exactly the opposite:   the Russians would back off in the face of threat.   The game we played was designed to show that they would also back off even after an attack.



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