I first wrote in these pages about the possibility of a military strike on Iran's nuclear weapons program over a decade ago ("Talk of a Military Operation on Iran," August 11, 2010). Despite a fair amount of time spent pondering the intricacies of such an attack by Israel since then, I cannot make any confident predictions about whether Israel will take military action nor about whether those actions would be successful. I am not privy to any information not available to any reader with an interest in the subject.
The difficulties on an Israeli strike are obvious. First, Iran is a long way from Israel, and any Israel action by air would likely involve a complicated refueling operation in midflight. Second, any effort to destroy or substantially set back Iran's nuclear program would involve strikes on multiple targets spread out over Iran.
Finally, and perhaps most important, many of the most crucial nuclear sites are deeply embedded into mountains. Israel lacks the type of bunker buster munitions capable of reaching those underground targets. Over the past decade, the Iranian air defenses have improved greatly, with the addition of advanced Russian systems. In the absence of bunker buster munitions from the United States, Israeli pilots would have to fly multiple sorties over the target and hit with pinpoint accuracy, all while under heavy missile fire.
Matters have not remained static, however, over the last decade. Israel's new friendship with a number of Gulf States, fueled in large part by their shared fears of Iran, is one such factor. It is at least conceivable that one or more of those states might grant Israeli planes access to their airfields, much closer to Iran, as their contribution to reducing the threat from Iran. (On the other hand, as long as Iran remains undeterred, they may not wish to make themselves targets of Iranian payback.)
It has also become clear that Israel has multiple means of damaging Iran's nuclear infrastructure, and many of them have been deployed in recent years. Israel's intelligence gathering about the Iranian program is excellent. The removal without detection of Iran's nuclear archives provided clear insights into Iran's strategic thinking about the nuclear option and into the nature of the program.
Israel has clearly turned a number of Iranian nuclear scientists, some of whom have been the perpetrators of sabotage aimed at various stages of the Iranian program. The July 2, 2020 explosion at the large underground site at Natanz for assembling advanced centrifuges and nuclear enrichment is one example. Israel has established important alliances as well with opposition groups in Iran opposed to the Khameini regime. Those groups have also taken part in a number of sabotage operations. The September 26 explosion and fire at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps site for the development of the Shahab-3 medium-range missile likely to be employed in any strike on Israel is one likely example. As the focus of Israeli efforts to stymie Iranian nuclear ambitions switches from Iran's enrichment program to its efforts to weaponize its enriched uranium, those internal allies will become ever more important.
The IDF's cyber capacities are among the best in the world, and have already been used on multiple occasions to inflict serious damage on Iranian nuclear installations. The quality of Israel's cyberwarfare teams must give Iranian leaders cause to worry whether Israel could bring the country's entire modern electronic infrastructure to a standstill. Iranian ports, for instance, have been a past target. (Iran's cyberwarfare capacities are also substantial, though not equal to Israel's.)
Though Iran is close to becoming a nuclear threshold state, something Israeli leaders have said they would never allow to happen, there may, in fact, be reasons not to launch a major air attack immediately. While Iran's program will continue to advance, it is also possible that Israel will develop a game-changer in the relatively near future. A laser-based missile defense system might be one such game-changer.
As effective as Iron Dome was against Hamas rockets in May, shooting down 1400 out of 1500 incoming rockets, Israel cannot count on the same kind of success against Hezbollah. The latter is estimated by the IDF to possess 140,000 missiles and rockets, many of them of long-range and precision guidance. Minimally, Hezbollah possesses ten times as many rockets and missiles as Hamas. It is capable of firing a volume of missiles that might well overwhelm Iron Dome, and even knock out crucial Iron Dome batteries.
Moreover, Iron Dome is very expensive to operate. Every rocket fired costs in the tens of thousands of dollars, whereas Hamas' projectiles may cost little more a few hundred dollars. A laser-based defense could overcome the latter problem, and likely the former as well. And Israel is working on such a defense.
In addition, a laser-based system would, at some point, be capable of striking a nuclear missile fired from Iran. The smaller the chances of an Iranian missile hitting Israel the smaller the chances of their attempting to launch such an attack. Israel is definitely at work on laser-based missile defense, the only question is how long it would take to develop and deploy.
THE LIKELIHOOD of a successful Israeli aerial attack on Iran's key nuclear facilities is, unfortunately, only one of the variables confronting Israeli policymakers. For an Israeli attack, whether successful or not, would not be the end of the matter. Even if successful, Iran would unleash Hezbollah on Israel, as well as other proxies. Indeed it has armed Hezbollah to the teeth primarily as insurance policy against an Israeli attack.
Hezbollah has missiles capable of hitting every part of Israel, and they would be aimed at high value targets – oil refineries, oil drilling in the Mediterranean, desalinization plants. If an oil refinery were hit, it would result in a fireball leaving a path of destruction and death. Moreover, Hezbollah would certainly attempt to overwhelm Iron Dome with the sheer volume of its rockets in order to wreak destruction on Israel's civilian population.
At the end of May fighting with Hamas, Hamas was still firing as many rockets per day as at the beginning. Iron Dome allowed Israel to tolerate such a situation. But there would be no such room for leeway against a Hezbollah onslaught. Israel would have no choice but to basically level immediately any house in Lebanon known to be sheltering missiles – pretty much the entirety of southern Lebanon, and to use ground troops as well. Israeli military chiefs have been very publicly warning for years that the Israeli response to a full-out Hezbollah attack would be fiercer and more brutal than anything yet seen in Gaza or Lebanon, in an effort to prepare the world for such an attack.
The battle with Hezbollah would be far more complex that the periodic outbreaks of fighting with Hamas in Gaza. The Lebanese border is far longer than that between Israel and Gaza, and it is far from hermetically sealed, as the Gaza border was from the time that Hamas's underground tunnels into Israel were discovered and destroyed. At least twice this year, Hezbollah fighters have penetrated into Israel, with one squad reaching the outskirts of Metullah. Hezbollah would likely deploy its best units, battle-hardened from years of fighting in Syria, in attempts to penetrate Israel.
Another complicating factor is that the IAF would not have the unchallenged air superiority that it has in Gaza. Hezbollah has advanced air defense batteries, the destruction of which would be a high priority for the Israeli air force. But, in addition, its missiles would be aimed at Israeli air bases around the country to destroy planes on the ground and to render runways unusable.
Already in 1999, MK Yuval Steinitz wrote in Commentary an article, "When the Palestinian Army Invades the Heart of Israel," in which he outlined the ability of the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to disrupt IDF operations in the event of war. And the events of May, in which Israeli Arabs terrorized the Jewish populations in mixed cities, such as Lod and Ramla, have only brought into clearer focus the magnitude of that threat.
Though Israel bombing in Lebanon would be responding to aggression from Hezbollah, and a matter of life and death for Israel, if we learned one thing from the May fighting with Hamas, it is how little much of the world, including important sectors of the American media and the left-wing of Democratic Party, care about who instigated the fighting. And if a Hezbollah launch of missiles at Israel was precipitated by an Israeli attack on Iran, Israel would be portrayed as the aggressor responsible for unleashing the havoc. Enemies of Israel would redouble efforts to turn it into a pariah state.
An attack on Iran and its nuclear program might well be necessary to prevent Israelis from living under the perpetual cloud of a nuclear Iran bent on their destruction. As Hitler, ym"sh, taught us, when your enemies proclaim their intention to exterminate the Jewish people, believe them.
And no doubt, at shul Kiddush tables around America voices will be raised to proclaim the need for the immediate Israeli bombing of Iran. But those bravely telling Israeli leaders what to do would be well-advised to at least be aware of the difficulty of the task ahead and likely aftermath of even a successful attack. Better that they should raise their voices in prayer to Hashem that we find the wherewithal to destroy our mortal enemies and be spared from their evil plans for us.