AMERICA and Israel often hint at military action to stop Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons programme. A number of factors have produced a particularly charged atmosphere of late: Iran’s growing uranium-enrichment programme; a faltering Western diplomatic effort to halt it; a fading American administration; and a nervous Israel. The latest wargames by Israel, America and Iran, plus Iran’s apparent rejection of Western diplomatic incentives to halt its nuclear work, all further raise the chances that sparks may fly.
Iranian television showed the test-firing of nine missiles on Wednesday July 9th, a day after an aide to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened to “burn” Tel Aviv and American ships in the Gulf, and strike at America’s “vital interests around the globe”, if Iran were attacked. The test included a version of the Shahab-3 missile which can reach Israel. This appears to be in response to Israeli war-games in June, in which about 100 jets flew over the eastern Mediterranean, apparently to rehearse the bombing of long-distance targets. Western officials were particularly struck by bum-numbing helicopter sorties of more than 1,300km, about the distance to Iran, to simulate the rescue of downed pilots. By implication these also demonstrated an ability to insert special forces.
Unusually, Israel conducted the exercise with Greece, rather than its traditional partner, Turkey, perhaps because Greece has some of the Russian-made SA-20 anti-aircraft missiles that Iran has recently bought. In the Gulf, meanwhile, American, British and Bahraini ships are involved in a joint exercise codenamed “Stake Net” to protect gas and oil installations. This seems to be a reaction to Iranian threats to retaliate against any attack by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the passage for roughly 40% of the world’s traded oil.
Does any of this make war more likely? The likelihood of an American attack has dropped since a National Intelligence Estimate concluded last year that Iran had stopped the development of a nuclear warhead in 2003. Iran’s work on the most difficult preliminary step, making enriched uranium (ostensibly for civil nuclear power), goes on. But Western experts think that it still faces big problems. In their annual threat assessment America’s spies said that Iran should technically be able to make enough fissile material for a bomb some time between 2010 and 2015, but it may take longer.
America’s ground forces are overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, although the American vice-president, Dick Cheney, is reported still to be pushing for an air strike. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff, said this month that opening a third front with Iran would be “extremely stressful, very challenging, with consequences that would be difficult to predict”. Asked whether Israel might act, he said: “This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don’t need it to be more unstable.” Israeli officials have said diplomacy is preferable to war. But political and military factors may yet convince Israel to take action.
Israel worries that, even if Tehran does not yet have enough fissile material for a bomb, every month that passes adds to its knowledge. The next American president may be less tough on Iran than the current one. If military action has to be taken, Israel may calculate, better to do it before the new man takes over. Moreover, if Israel intends to bomb the Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr, it would be better to do so before it is loaded with fuel, probably before October. Israel might also prefer to act before Iran deploys its new generation of air-defence missiles, which may happen early next year.
An attack would not be easy. Iran’s nuclear installations are dispersed, and some facilities are buried deeply. In contrast with Israel’s bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and of an alleged Syrian nuclear facility last year, there is no element of surprise. Israel might seek a nod from America—or it might be willing to act alone. It would probably need to use Iraq’s (American-controlled) airspace and would ideally want American support to deal with the consequences—perhaps including an attack by Hizbullah in Lebanon. Past Israeli wargames are said to have envisioned thousands of Israeli civilians killed by Iranian and Hizbullah missiles.