TEL AVIV – With diplomatic efforts to curb the fluctuation of Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s defense minister ordered his troops to prepare a military option, warning the world that Israel would take matters into its own hands if a new nuclear deal did not sufficiently constrain Iran.
But several current and former senior Israeli military officials and experts say Israel lacks the ability to launch an attack that could disrupt or even significantly delay Iran’s nuclear program, at least in the near term. One current senior security official said it would take at least two years to prepare an attack that could cause significant damage to Iran’s nuclear project.
Experts and officials believe that a smaller blow, damaging parts of the program, but not ending it completely, would have been possible earlier. But broader efforts to destroy dozens of nuclear facilities in remote parts of Iran – an attack threatened by Israeli officials – will go beyond the current resources of the Israeli military.
“It is very difficult – I would say even impossible – to start a campaign to look after all of these facilities,” said Relik Shafir, a retired Israeli Air Force general who was a pilot during the 1981 strike on an Iraqi nuclear facility.
“In the world we live in, the only air force that can campaign is the US air force,” he said.
The recent discussion of a military attack on Iran is part of a campaign to pressure Israel to make sure that the countries negotiating with Iran in Vienna disagree with what Israeli officials see as a “bad deal” that they believe will not interfere with Iran. from the development of nuclear weapons.
There seems little chance at this point, as negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran have only regressed since Iran’s new hard-line government joined them last month.
So far, Israel has tried to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which it considers a real threat, through a combination of aggressive diplomacy and covert attacks. Israeli officials saw it as a coup when they managed to persuade President Donald Trump to withdraw from the 2015 deal that President Biden now wants to save.
Israel is also waging a shadow war through espionage, targeted assassinations, sabotage and cyberattacks – smaller operations that it has never officially claimed. Israel secretly considered launching full-scale airstrikes in 2012 before abandoning the plan.
But as Iran’s nuclear enrichment program approaches weapons-grade levels, Israeli politicians are increasingly warning of what the world has long assumed: Israel could go into open war if Iran is allowed to make progress in developing nuclear weapons, which is aim of Iran. denies.
In September, the head of the Israeli armed forces, Lieutenant General Aviv Kohavi, said that a significant part of the increase in the military budget was allocated to preparing an attack on Iran. Earlier this month, the head of the Mossad, David Barney, said that Israel will do “everything possible” to prevent Iran from creating a nuclear bomb.
During a visit to the United States this month, Defense Secretary Benny Gantz publicly stated that he had ordered the Israeli army to prepare for a possible military strike against Iran.
But Israeli experts and the military say Israel is currently unable to deliver a crushing blow to Iran’s nuclear program from the air.
Iran has dozens of nuclear facilities, some of which are deep underground, and it will be difficult for Israeli bombs to quickly penetrate and destroy them, Mr. Shafir said. The Israeli Air Force does not have combat aircraft large enough to carry the latest bunker-destroying bombs, so more defended targets will have to be repeatedly hit with less effective missiles, which could take days or even weeks, Mr Shafir added.
One current senior security official said Israel is currently unable to do significant damage to the underground facilities at Natanz and Fordow.
Such efforts will be compounded by a shortage of tanker aircraft. Refueling capability is critical for a bomber, which may have to travel more than 2,000 miles round trip, crossing Arab countries that would not want to be refueled for an Israeli strike.
Israel has ordered eight new KC-46 tankers from Boeing at a cost of $ 2.4 billion, but the ordered planes have been returned and Israel is unlikely to receive at least one by the end of 2024.
In addition to the ability to engage targets, Israel will have to simultaneously repel Iranian fighters and air defense systems.
Any attack on Iran is also likely to trigger retaliatory attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Iran’s allies, who will try to force Israel to wage war on multiple fronts simultaneously.
Iran’s defense capabilities are also much higher than in 2012, when Israel last seriously considered attacking. Its nuclear facilities are better fortified and it has more surface-to-surface missiles that can be launched quickly from tunnels.
“It is very possible that when Israeli planes try to land in Israel, they find that Iranian missiles have destroyed their runways,” said Tal Inbar, an aviation expert and former head of the Fischer Institute for Strategic Aviation and Space Research. a research group specializing in aviation.
Other military experts, however, say Israel can still disable the most important elements of the Iranian nuclear apparatus, even without new aircraft and equipment.
“It’s always good to replace a 1960 car with a new 2022 car,” said Amos Yadlin, a former Air Force general who also participated in the 1981 strike. “But we have refueling opportunities. We have bunkers. We have some of the best air forces in the world. We have very good intelligence in Iran. We can do this.
“Can the US Air Force do it better? Definitely. They have much more efficient aircraft. But they have no will. “
He warned that he would support the strike only as a last resort.
Israeli officials refuse to discuss the red lines that Iran must cross to launch a military strike. However, a senior Defense Ministry official said that if Iran begins enriching uranium to 90 percent purity, that is, weapons fuel, Israel will be forced to step up its actions. US officials said Iran is currently enriching uranium to 60 percent purity.
The fact that a massive air campaign against Iran could take years to activate should not come as a surprise to the Israeli military. When Israel considered such an attack in 2012, it took more than three years to prepare, Israeli officials said.
But the distance between the current government’s threats and its ability to implement them has drawn criticism of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who led Israel’s government until June last year and was a staunch supporter of a tougher approach to Iran.
Preparations for a strike on Iran have slowed since 2015, according to a senior Israeli military official, as the military focused on clashes with militants in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.
In 2017, the Israel Air Force determined they needed to replace their tanker aircraft, but the Netanyahu government did not order them until last March.
Another senior military official said that since 2019, the army has asked Netanyahu for additional funds to improve Israel’s ability to attack Iran, but has been refused.
In a statement, Mr Netanyahu’s office said the opposite was true, that it was Mr Netanyahu who required additional resources and energy to strike Iran, while military leaders insisted on spending most of their budget on other issues and slowed down preparations to strike at Iran.
“If it were not for the political, operational and budgetary measures taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu over the past decade, Iran would have long had an arsenal of nuclear weapons,” the statement said.
Regardless of whether Netanyahu has limited funding, experts say the money in question would have little impact on the army’s ability to attack Iran.
“You can always improve the situation – buy more tanker aircraft, buy new, larger quantities of fuel,” said Mr. Shafir. But even with these improvements and air force superiority, he said, Israeli airstrikes would not end Iran’s nuclear program.
However, they would most likely set the region on fire.
Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv, and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem. Mira Novek provided reports from Jerusalem, and Ravan Sheikh Ahmad from Haifa, Israel.