Briefing paper February 2006
Published by Oxford Research Group, 2006
Israel has maintained a nuclear capability since the late 1960s and is
believed to have around 200 nuclear warheads, principally for delivery by
aircraft or surface-to-surface missiles. It may also be developing warheads
for submarine-launched cruise missiles. Even so, Israel regards it as
essential to its security that it is the only state in the region with a
nuclear capability. Since the Iranian Revolution at the end of the 1970s,
successive Israeli governments have regarded Iran as the greatest long-term
Units of the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Iraqi experimental Osiraq reactor near Baghdad in 1981, limiting Iraq’s potential to take the plutonium route to nuclear weapons. Baghdad was within range of Israeli aircraft whereas the Iranian facilities were, until recently, at the limit of Israeli Air Force capability. That has now changed with the importing of long-range versions of the US F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft – the F-15I and the F-16I. 25 of the F-15I are currently in service and Israel is building up a force of 102 F-16I aircraft, deliveries having stared in 2003.(2) The Israeli Air Force has also acquired 500 earth penetrating bombs from the United States for use against underground facilities.
Israeli military units have also been involved in a range of operations in Iraq, especially in the Kurdish north-east of the country where, among other activities, they have been training commando units.
More generally, the normally close relationship between the US military and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has been greatly strengthened in the past two years as a result of US experiences in Iraq. There has been a substantial exchange of experience, especially between the IDF and the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).(3) Israeli arms companies have also provided the US armed forces with a wide range of specialist counter-insurgency weaponry and equipment, much of it developed as a result of Israeli experience in controlling the occupied Palestinian territories. Although not commonly covered in the western media, this relationship is well known across the Middle East and would contribute to an assumption that any Israeli attack on Iran would be undertaken with the knowledge, approval and assistance of the United States. It is certainly the case that an Israeli air attack on Iran would involve flights through air space currently dominated by the United States.
For the purposes of this paper, it is assumed that if the IDF was to engage in actions to seriously damage Iran’s nuclear weapons developments, it would therefore do so with the tacit support of the United States, would have access to facilities in North-East Iraq if needed, would be aiming simply to set back any nuclear programme for five years or more, and would also target Iranian missile developments. It would not extend beyond these aims whereas US action would need to do so, for reasons discussed later.
The close links between Israel and the United States are far more widely recognised across the Middle East than in the US or Europe. As a result, any Israeli military action against Iran would be seen as essentially a joint operation, with Israel acting as a surrogate and doing so with direct US support.
The Iranian context comprises a self-perception of Iran as one of the
world’s historic powers and a belief that a high-technology future is an
essential part of its place in the world, coupled with a strong feeling of
current vulnerability. As with China, Iran looks back to several thousand
years of notable history and believes that greatness is once more feasible
given the combination of massive fossil fuel resources, a young population,
a large and well-populated country and a geographical position that puts it
at the heart of an immensely significant region.
Although the Iranian socio-political environment is complex and markedly changeable, there is a general belief in the value of advanced technology, and a perception of nuclear power as a symbol of modernity. When faced with the argument that a country so well endowed with oil and gas does not need nuclear power, the immediate reply is to point to a fifth of electricity already generated by hydro-electric power, and the argument that oil and gas are too valuable to be used for electricity generation, especially given Iran’s indigenous reserves of uranium ores. In terms of public attitudes, it is clear that a range of opinion formers from across the political and religious spectrums believe that Iran has every right to develop a nuclear fuel cycle. It is also the widespread view that Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons should the country’s security require it.
Although Iran was in breach of some aspects of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 1990s, it is, at the time of writing, abiding by the terms of the treaty. It is therefore allowed to develop a civil nuclear power programme, including uranium enrichment activities, and could remain within the terms of the treaty until such time as a decision was taken to develop nuclear weapons in which case, as with North Korea, it could withdraw. Given the US view of Iran as part of the “axis of evil”, this is not acceptable to the current administration in Washington. It is just possible that Washington might entertain the continued development of a civil nuclear power programme that did not involve domestic uranium enrichment, but even this is not certain.
On the question of Iranian perceptions of security, while there is considerable self-belief in the capabilities of Iran, there is also a certain sense of insecurity. In the past four years, Iran has seen the regimes to the east and west of it terminated by large-scale military action by a superpower that has implied that regime termination in Iran is a desirable option.
Immediately to the west of Iran, the United States has close to 150,000 troops in Iraq and is building permanent military bases there. It has extensive deployments in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar and has its Fifth Fleet that controls the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea and is overwhelmingly powerful in contrast with the small Iranian Navy. To the east, Iran sees the United States firmly ensconced in Afghanistan, with two permanent bases now established at Bagram near Kabul and at Kandahar (see Appendix 1). Moreover, a large new military base is being developed near the western Afghan city of Herat, close to Iran’s eastern border with that country. Finally, the United States has developed close military links and, in some cases, basing facilities in a number of countries to the north and east of Iran, especially those close to the Caspian Basin oil fields or pipelines that bring such oil through to Black Sea or Mediterranean ports.
These factors all make it reasonable to assume that there is a strong
motivation for Iran either to develop nuclear weapons or to have the ability
to do so at short notice should it be decided that national security makes
such a decision essential. However, motivation does not equate with an
inevitability of such a decision. Furthermore, this context is complicated
by the current political environment. The relatively reformist
administration of President Khatami failed to instigate sufficient reforms
to satisfy a young, ambitious and often frustrated population, partly
because the conservative theocracy could block many initiatives without
difficulty. The Khatami government also failed to address deep
socio-economic divisions, and its double failure, coupled with the blocking
of reformists standing for power by the theocracy, limited choices in the
2005 elections, both for the Majlis and the Presidency. The surprise
election of Mr Ahmadinejad, with strong Revolutionary Guard support, came
about partly because he was thought to speak for the poor.
President Ahmadinejad’s policies since coming to power have been somewhat unpredictable.
They have included strident public attacks on Israel, the replacement of moderates and technocrats in key ministries and diplomatic missions and the removal from office of those previously engaged in negotiations with the EU3 on nuclear issues. These are all moves likely to cause further tensions with Washington. They are not necessarily popular across the Iranian political spectrum, and that may include substantial elements of the powerful theocracy. It is possible that the Ahmadinejad administration may soon experience serious problems of stability, but that could lead to a hardening of policies, hastening a crisis with the United States.
Furthermore, current circumstances in neighbouring Iraq are broadly favourable to the present administration in Tehran and unfavourable to the United States. Progress towards wider representation within Iraq invariably means more power for the Shi’a community, many elements of which have close connections with Iran. In spite of regular claims of Iranian support for some of the Shi’a militias in Iraq, there is little evidence of substantial official Iranian involvement, but the potential is certainly there.
The UK has made more particular claims of Iranian involvement in the spreading of some weapons technologies, but Iran, in turn, blames Britain and the US for supporting dissidents, even to the extent of their being involved in some manner in some of the recent bombing incidents within Iran.
(2) The Military Balance 2005/06 (London: International Institute
for Strategic Studies, 2005).
(3) Barbara Opal-Rome, “Seeking Urban Ops Answers in Israel”, Defense News (14 June 2004).