Jordan Reimer, MPA
After a long hiatus, there is renewed international focus on Iran’s nuclear program, from hyperventilating Israeli media reports last month on an imminent attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities to the recent release of an unprecedented International Atomic Energy Agency report pointing to Iranian activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear device.”
In the international debate on what to do about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, for those who advocate taking military action against the Islamic Republic the conventional wisdom has settled on Israel doing the world’s dirty work – as it did against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. Those who oppose Iran's nuclear activities but are still circumspect of this course of action advance a counterargument that falls essentially along two lines of thought: logistical infeasibility and geopolitical inadvisability.
The first contention details several obstacles: a) the vast geographic distance between Iran and Israel, b) the fact that Iranian nuclear sites are dispersed throughout the country (a lesson learned no doubt from Iraq’s vulnerability), c) the reality that such sites are situated in hardened bunkers located either underground or deep inside mountain ranges, and d) the possible existence of secret sites unknown to Israeli and American intelligence.
A successful action plan would therefore mandate continuous multi-sortie strikes over several parts of the country by Israeli fighter jets. (Israel does have a long-range missile program, but such a weapon is inappropriate for precision strikes.) However, an attack of this sort would soon fall susceptible to advanced Iranian anti-aircraft capabilities. Israeli airplanes would therefore be limited to execute only a quick once-over before returning home. And, in light of Israel’s deep concern for the lives of its soldiers, given the distance between Jerusalem and Tehran a viable plan would require mid-air refueling to guarantee the pilots’ safe return, a near impossibility considering the non-hospitable airspace Israel must traverse to reach Iran.
With all of these constraints, even if Israel did successfully pull off this type of limited mission, it would hardly improve Israel’s national security: experts assume Israel would set back Iranian efforts only a few years at the most. If anything, it would be merely a strategic victory, signaling the resolve behind Israel’s rhetoric and indicating its sincere desperate determination to prevent Iran from going further in its nuclear work.
For all of these reasons, an Israeli attack with potential to severely cripple Iranian nuclear ambitions was largely considered a fantasy.
No longer. On February 21st, 2010, Israel Aerospace Industries unveiled a new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Heron TP, nicknamed “Eitan.” Able to fly at medium-to-high altitudes for over 20 hours while carrying a variety of payloads, equipped with a silent engine ensuring stealth, and significantly, capable of reaching Iran, the drone relieves Israeli military logisticians of concerns regarding refueling and the safety of its airmen against anti-aircraft artillery. The drones could be mass-produced and then flown incessantly until all Iranian nuclear sites are obliterated. Even if the drones are shot down, it would come at a relatively modest cost (the price tag might be steep but it would be infinitely better than an Israeli soldier in Tehran’s hands). The UAVs could be equipped with self-detonation devices should they be captured to avoid Iran gaining insight into Israeli military technology.
Importantly, the second line of reasoning against an attack – geopolitical considerations – remains unchanged: bombing Iran is still a terrible idea. It will indefinitely delay the moribund Middle East peace process, inflame the Arab and Muslim world against the US at a time when it has a legitimate chance to turn over a new leaf, force a wedge between both US-Israel and US-Arab/US-Muslim relations, and almost certainly provoke Hezbollah and possibly Hamas to launch retaliatory attacks against the Israeli civilian populace. Not least, it could conceivably convince Iran to finally declare its intention for a nuclear weapon as a deterrent against future Israeli aggression, a stand which it has consistently refused to take.
To (mis)quote Rudy Giuliani, “The use of military force against Iran would be very dangerous. It would be provocative.” Yes. And it shouldn’t be done. (Though it’s outside the purview of this article, let me at least acknowledge that though there is no silver bullet, a healthy mix of sanctions, coalition-building, and containment should be sufficient to keep Iran at bay, should it develop the dreaded weapon.)
The revelation of the “Eitan,” then, is both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side it signals to Iran Israel’s credible conventional deterrent against development of a bomb (no doubt why the UAV’s unveiling was so public), which might induce the ayatollahs to rethink any potential attempts to acquire such a weapon. And yet, on the other hand, it removes the only barrier that Israel’s security hawks faced in their myopic and monomaniacal desire to carry out a strike on Iran. We can only hope that cooler heads prevail and the remaining reasons buttressing the argument not to attack remain foremost in the minds of Israeli policymakers and American interlocutors.