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Can Israel Strike Iran?

Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal has a column today asking whether Israel can bomb Iran. He writes:

Put simply, an Israeli strike on Iran would not just be a larger-scale reprise of the attacks that took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. On the contrary: If it goes well it would look somewhat like the Six-Day War of 1967, and if it goes poorly like the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Nobody should think we’re talking about a cakewalk.

While many proponents of a military strike draw parallels to Israel’s strike against the Iraqi reactor in 1981, or its attack on the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, Stephens is correct to note that the Iranian situation is far different, but he doesn’t go far enough: Even if Israeli pilots managed to fly into Iran with surprise, they will not be able to fly out with surprise once they drop their ordnance. This means that, even before Israeli planes can strike at Iranian nuclear facilities, they would have to strike enemy airfields, surface-to-air missile batteries, command and control centers, and radars. Multiple planes would then strike at the same target to better ensure success. In short, this could mean more than 1,000 sorties. Certainly, Israel has submarines and unmanned drones, but these alone will not suffice.

Too often, discussion about a military strike revolves around the bunker buster issue. This is not a make-or-break issue. While Iran has buried facilities under mountains—not the usual stuff of a civilian energy program—it would suffice to destroy the entrances or exits to such facilities. Israel timed its strike on Osirak to pre-empt the loading of nuclear fuel into the reactor. Iran’s centrifuges are already spinning, so if Israel collapses entrances to the mountain facility, Greenpeace should dance a hora of joy.

Stephens is correct that a strike would likely delay Iran’s nuclear program. Such a strike would come at a high cost, though experts can debate the length of the delay. In all likelihood, it would not equate to the setback suffered by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, whose own missteps in Kuwait contributed to further sanctions and war, extending the delay beyond Israel’s wildest dreams. Still, the real question for policymakers is what plans are in place to take advantage of such a delay. Ultimately, until policymakers are willing to discuss the real problem—not Iran’s potential nuclear weapons but the regime which would wield them—there will be no lasting solution.


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