by Thom Curtis, Ph.D.
Lost in the cacophony of noise surrounding the American presidential campaigns, an ominous countdown clock is ticking louder and louder. How long until Israel attacks Iran to destroy the Islamic Republic’s budding atomic weapons program? If the clock reaches zero, Hawaii and the rest of the western world will be confronted with unprecedented economic challenges. If conflict results in an oil cutoff, Hawaii more than any other state will be in danger of running out.
During recent trips to Israel, I was bombarded with questions from academics and the general public regarding what I thought the U.S. would do. The fear is palpable that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will make good on his repeated threats to destroy Israel. As recently as June 2nd, Ahmadinejad promised, “I must announce that the Zionist regime… is about to die and will soon be erased from the geographical scene.” Mohammed Ali Jafari, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is quoted in the Sunday Telegraph as threatening that Israel “is completely within the range of the Islamic republic’s missiles…Our missile power and capability are such that the Zionist regime cannot confront it.” While the public U.S. response describes such threats as “chest pounding”, the Israelis’ experience tells them to take the rhetoric seriously.
The British Sunday Telegraph June 29 published an interview with the former head of Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad. Shabtai Shavit described the conundrum faced by the Israelis regarding Iran’s nuclear program which he predicted could create an atomic bomb within as little as 12 months. Israelis have little doubt the Iranians would use the bomb to enhance their position in the Muslim world. The consensus among American intelligence and military analysts is that allowing Iran to “go nuclear” would scramble the power schema for the entire Middle-East in unpredictable ways. Many believe that a nuclear Iran threatens major oil producers such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Over 40% of the planet’s international oil trade passes through the narrow Strait of Hormuz separating Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.
For most Israelis with whom I spoke, the question is not whether preemptive attacks on Iran’s nuclear arms program should be attempted. The question is who will conduct the attacks and when. They have concluded that the attack must take place before Iran has the bomb. They hope the U.S. will either conduct the attack itself or at least provide Israel with tactical assistance.
In each of Israel’s wars for survival since the battle for independence in 1948, the nature and timing of the conflicts was in large measure been determined by the nation’s need for external support of their actions. The most significant factors, especially in 1967 and 1973, have been Israel’s perception of how much diplomatic and military support it could depend upon from the United States. The burning question in Israel right now is what type of support the U.S. will provide when it comes to destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Israel was able to carry out a similar preemptive strike in 1981 against Saddam Hussein’s nuclear facilities in Iraq. To have the same success in Iran, Israeli pilots must conquer greater distances and difficulties. The Israeli Air Force June 2 conducted practice maneuvers over the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas that involve flight paths mimicking the trip to Iran’s nuclear plants. The exercise reportedly incorporated more than 100 Israeli aircraft, including F-15s, F-16s, KC-130 air refueling tankers, and rescue helicopters for downed pilots. An attack on Iran will be simplified if the U.S. and Iraqi governments allow the Israelis a direct path through Iraq’s airspace. Without such permission, they will be forced to fly a longer route.
There is consensus that the current U.S. administration is likely to be more supportive of Israeli attacks on Iran than any new administration, especially that of Barrack Obama. Earlier this week, John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., repeated speculation that the Israelis will postpone the attack until after the election on November 4. Reportedly, the Pentagon analysts have reached similar conclusions. That leaves an 11-week window until inauguration day, January 20, 2009. On Wednesday, July 2, Israel publicly informed the U.S. and select European governments that they would not initiate an attack on Iran during 2008. If the public statement is not part of a strategy to confuse the Iranians, it narrows to the attack window to the first three months of the new year.
Diplomatic efforts to encourage or coerce Iran to drop its program to enrich uranium for a bomb have born no fruit. Last September, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had 3,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges at work with more going online all the time and that Iran would continue its program in spite of U.N. sanctions. At that time, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that it believed Iran only had about 2,000 centrifuges in place, but it is believed that more have been added since. The International Institute for Strategic Studies predicted that 3,000 centrifuges could produce sufficient material for one bomb within nine to 11 months.
The ticking will continue regardless of political rhetoric or election results. Iran’s program to build an atom bomb is real and must not be masked by the arguments regarding the authentic or imagined possession of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons by Saddam Hussein. At this point it is almost inevitable that Israel and/or the United States are going to take action.
Whether or not preemptive strikes are successful, the fallout will be felt world-wide. The potential for disruption of oil supplies may be greater than at any time since the oil embargoes of the 1970’s. Whatever plans Hawaii has for a rainy day had better be dusted off.
Dr. Thom Curtis is the author of the book “Hawai`i Remembers September 11” and conducts research on various aspects of radicalization and terrorism.