It wasn't an official military assessment, but retired Gen. John Abizaid's remarks at a Marine Corps University conference last week appeared to echo the thinking of at least some in the upper echelons of the U.S. military: Israel is incapable of seriously damaging Iran's nuclear program. Abizaid, who oversaw military operations in the Middle East as head of U.S. Central Command until 18 months ago, caused a stir last year by publicly asserting the United States could live with a nuclear-armed Iran through a strategy of cold-war-style deterrence. Last week, when asked to reflect on the possible consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, Abizaid said he doubted whether "the Israelis have the capability to make a lasting impression on the Iranian nuclear program with their military capabilities." An Israel–Iran confrontation, he said, would be "bad for the region, bad for the United States [and would] ultimately move the region into an even more unstable situation."
Israel believes Tehran might be within a year of crossing the uranium-enrichment threshold and has made clear it would not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. (Iran says its program is peaceful.) A year ago, Israel sent warplanes to Syria to destroy what it believed to be a budding nuclear facility. But according to several officers and Pentagon analysts who spoke to NEWSWEEK, the U.S. military thinks Israel would face huge challenges in reaching Iran, refueling its warplanes along the way and penetrating hardened nuclear targets. Earlier this month, the United States agreed to sell Israel 1,000 small-diameter bombs known as GBU-39s, capable of piercing several feet of concrete—an arms deal that analysts believe is linked to the Iran issue. But a spokesman for Boeing, which makes the bombs, estimated that they would not be delivered before 2010. And thus far, according to a source familiar with talks between the two countries, the United States has not granted Israel's request for additional equipment. That order from the Israelis, said one Pentagon analyst who monitors the Middle East and did not want to be named discussing sensitive issues, reinforces the notion that its military does not have the means to conduct a large-scale attack.