Israeli fighter jets flew 1,500 kms across the Mediterranean this month, in a dry run for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Tehran has threatened to treat such a raid as a declaration of war. As the Middle East braces itself for a stand-off of epic proportions, how close is the region to that nightmare scenario?
- The Observer, Sunday June 29, 2008
The meeting at the home of Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not supposed to be public. The man invited into Olmert's official residence in Jerusalem was Aviam Sela, architect of Operation Opera in 1981, when Israel launched a long-range strike against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. Regarded as a brilliant aviation tactician, in particular in the field of in-flight refuelling, Olmert's office tried to play down the meeting. But the rumours in Israel's defence establishment were already flying.
Sela, according to sources close to the meeting, had been called in so that Olmert could ask his opinion on the likely effectiveness of a similar raid to Opera on the nuclear installations of Iran.
Peace in the Middle East depends on Sela's and Israel's answer. Yesterday, responding to the Israel's increasingly bellicose language, Iran's top Revolutionary Guards Commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, warned that it would respond to any attack by hitting Israel with missiles and threatened to control the oil shipping passage through the Straits of Hormuz.
If Israel were to attack it would have to overcome considerable practical problems. There is no one who believes that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be anything like Opera, when eight F-16s and a similar number of F-15s crept into Iraq. For one thing, in pursuing its nuclear ambitions, Iran took note of the Osirak lessons. Its facilities, including a light water reactor at Bushehr and the controversial uranium enrichment process at Natanz, are dispersed and, in the case of Natanz, protected by up to 23 metres of hardened concrete.
To destroy the uranium centrifuge halls at Natanz alone, analysts have argued, might require up to 80 5,000lb penetrating bombs dropped in almost simultaneous pairs to allow the second bomb to burrow through the crater of the first. Opera required just a handful of bombs.
To strike even the bare minimum of so-called target sets associated with Natanz and Bushehr without the assistance of US cruise missiles fired from their ships in the Persian Gulf would require a massive military effort and, according to the Israeli air force's own assessments, might risk the loss of large numbers of its aircraft for a temporary impact.
But the rumours keep circulating and the hushed briefings are multiplying. In the Israeli Prime Minister's traditional round of interviews on the eve of Passover earlier this year, Olmert vowed that Iran 'will not be nuclear'.