Quoting US officials, the “New York Times” reported as follows on June 20,2008: ” U.S. officials say Israel carried out a large military exercise this month that appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters took part in the maneuvers over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece in the first week of June. The exercise appeared to be an effort to focus on long-range strikes and illustrates the seriousness with which Israel views Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli officials would not discuss the exercise. A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces would say only that the country’s air force “regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel.” . A Pentagon official, who was briefed on the exercise, said one goal was to practice flight tactics, aerial refueling and other details of a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear installations and long-range conventional missiles. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a second goal was to send a clear message that Israel was prepared to act militarily if other efforts to stop Iran from producing bomb-grade uranium fail. “They wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know,” the Pentagon official said. “There’s a lot of signaling going on at different levels.” Several U.S. officials said they did not believe Israel had decided to attack Iran or think such a strike was imminent.”
2. This could be part of a Psywar tactics jointly mounted by Israel and the US to make Iran co-operate with the efforts of the international community to denuclearise its military capability without damaging its capability for civilian nuclear development.
3. Iran has been playing its own psychological game by sticking to its refusal to suspend the enrichment of uranium at its facility in Natanz while at the same time giving the impression of being willing to continue its talks on the subject with its Western interlocutors.
4. In this game, time is important in different senses for Israel and Iran. Understandably, Israel is getting impatient because, in its view, much time has already been wasted in pointless negotiations with Iran. This has enabled Iran to commission its uranium enrichment facility. It is now trying to expand the capacity of Natanz by installing more centrifuges for enrichment. The more the centrifuges and the richer the level and quantity of enrichment, the greater the danger of environmental damage if the Israeli Air Force strikes at it. If the environmental damage affects the health of the people of neighbouring Arab countries, local public opinion could further turn against the US and Israel.
5. In Iraq in the early 1980s and in Syria last year, Israel struck at nuclear facilities under construction. There was no such danger. Israeli military and intelligence experts must be telling their policy-makers that they have already delayed action too long and that they should at least now strike at Iranian sites when they might still be able to prevent adverse effects on Iran’s neighbours.
6. There is another reason why Israel cannot afford to waste more time. If they strike when Mr.George Bush is still in office—particularly before the Presidential elections in November— Mr.Bush might hold the ring for them and see that the international community does not fall upon Israel. If they wait till next year, they may not be able to count on similar support from the next President—whether it is Mr.Barrack Obama or Mr.John McCain. The next President will take at least six months from his inauguration in January to work out a coherent policy on Iran.
7. Apart from the risk of environmental damage, Israel will face another danger the like of which it did not face from Iraq or Syria. Iran is a strong military power with a capability to strike back at Israel through its Air Force and missiles. Moreover, Iran is a more ruthless power than Iraq or Syria. It may not hesitate to itself carry out or to have carried out through a surrogate an attack on the Strait of Hormuz in order to block the flow of oil at a time when the economies of many countries, including India, are facing serious difficulties due to the sky-rocketing oil prices caused partly by normal market speculation and partly by nervousness over the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran. Israel would also face the danger of a retaliation by Hizbollah from its bases in the Lebanon.
8. Israel will have the following options:one, strike only at the nuclear sites and wait to see what is Iran’s response in the hope of being able to counter that response. Second, neutralise initially Iran’s air and missile capabilities and then hit at its nuclear sites. Third, neutralise simulataneously Iran’s nuclear, air and missile capabilities.
9. The ideal time for an Israeli strike, if it decides to strike, will be between now and before the presidential election campaign picks up momentum in the US. Once the US is in the midst of the campaign, the flexibility of response now available to the Bush administration might be reduced. An ideal time could be in August when the world attention will be on the Beijing Olympics with little attention paid to Iran.
10.Time is equally important for Iran because if it succeeds in preventing action by the US or Israel or both till January, the possibility of action might get reduced once a new President is in position—-particularly if that President happens to be Mr.Obama. He is a very engaging and electrifying personality, but does not appear to have a stomach for strong action either against Iran or Pakistan or Al Qaeda or the Taliban or the Hizbollah. He may turn out to be another Jimmy Carter—lovable, but nothing more.
11. The two potential candidates are now working out their policy options before the campaign starts officially. One notices that both the camps are talking in terms of policy responses in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and against Al Qaeda and the its associates as if each could be dealt with separately. They don’t see a connecting thread. Instead, the debate should be on policy options available in response to two threats which would confront the international community in the short and medium terms. These are, firstly, Iran’s use of Hizbollah and the Shia militant groups in Iraq to achieve its strategic purposes in the region and the dangers arising from its nuclear capability and the possibility of the transfer of this capability to the Hizbollah. Secondly, Pakistan’s use of Al Qaeda and the Pashtun Taliban to achieve its strategic objectives in Afghanistan and the Punjabi Taliban to achieve its strategic objective relating to Kashmir against India and the dangers arising from the possibility of these terrorist groups gaining access to Pakistan’s nuclear expertise.
12. Everybody talks only of the dangers of Al Qaeda and its Pashtun and Punjabi associates getting hold of Pakistan’s nuclear expertise. Nobody talks of the danger of the Hizbollah and the Shia terrorist groups of Iraq getting hold of Iran’s nuclear expertise.
13. Whether what is going on presently is only a Psywar or whether there is a real possibility of an Israeli pre-emptive action, the effect on the oil market will be the same—push up prices further. Oil prices are unlikely to come down till the present crisis over Iran’s nuclear intentions is resolved in a manner, which reduces the concerns of Israel. India will suffer more from the surging oil prices than China because after 9/11, China has built up its strategic oil reserves. India has done very little in this direction. Our economy, which is already considerably behind the Chinese economy, will lag further behind. (21-6-08)
(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and , presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )