Four Day War
The Iran/Israel conflagration, a history.
By Claude Salhani
A number of analysts believe that Iran will reach a critical stage in
its pursuit of nuclear capability sometime within the next few months.
This is a terrifying new development, far more worrisome than the wars
and uprisings that have plagued the Middle East to date.
Indeed, as Ray Takeyh, director of studies at the Near East and South
Asia Center at the National Defense University, said at a recent
Washington conference, Iran may have already passed the point of
“political no return” in its bid for nuclear competence. If the Islamic
republic has already passed that political landmark, then the actual
point of no return cannot be far away.
Iran’s urge to join the elite “nuclear club” has been encouraged by a
number of patrons who would like to see a second Islamic nation, after
Pakistan, develop a nuclear weapon to counter Israel’s atomic arsenal.
Takeyh believes that if Iran has not crossed the threshold, it is
Stressing the Islamic republic’s objective, last June Iran’s Foreign
Minister Kamal Kharrazi asked that his nation be recognized as a member
of the nuclear club. “This is an irreversible path,” Kharrazi stated. He
went on to reveal that his country is now able to operate the full
nuclear fuel cycle. Then, in a tentative reassurance to the West, added
that Iran is “not now enriching uranium.” Not yet—but intelligence
analysts believe it will soon begin processing this vital nuclear
Iran has long wanted to be recognized as a regional superpower, a desire
that began under the shah, if not earlier, possibly as far back as 580
B.C. with Cyrus the Great. The country’s mutation from an imperial
dynasty to an Islamic theocracy did little to alter Iran’s visions of
regional grandeur. From their perspective, Iranians feel they have good
reason to want nuclear deterrence.
First, the United States’ invasion of Iraq served as a reminder to
autocracies around the world of their need to be strong enough to deter
potential U.S. intervention. If nothing else, Iraq’s invasion served as
the poster child for nuclear deterrence against unilateral military
action from the world’s remaining superpower. Repeated threats of regime
change by the Bush administration have only increased Iran’s fears that
they could be next in line. President George W. Bush’s campaign promise
about “finishing the job,” if re-elected in November, is a slogan that
must keep more than one ayatollah awake at night—and pushing for nuclear
Immediately following the 1991 Gulf War, India’s then chief of staff was
asked privately what strategic lessons should be drawn from the rapid
and overwhelming U.S. victory over Iraq. “Make sure you have your own
atomic bomb before you challenge the United States,” he replied.
Second, Iran cannot predict how a highly unstable Iraq—a longtime
foe—will turn out once this initial post-Saddam chaotic phase passes.
And third, some members of Tehran’s ruling theocracy believe that if
Israel is permitted nuclear weapons, why not Iran? Being lumped into the
“Axis of Evil” has helped justify a level of paranoia.
While the United States is keeping an eye on Iran’s nuclear progress,
there is another country watching even more closely. Israel, feeling the
most threatened by Iran’s march towards nuclear competency, is
reportedly preparing a repeat of its 1981 raid on Iraq’s nuclear
facility at Osirak. With about 140,000 American troops in neighboring
Iraq, chances that the U.S. will intervene militarily are slim, making
it all the more probable that Israel will feel it has to act
According to a recent report, Israel has built replicas of Iran’s
nuclear facilities in the Negev Desert, where their fighter-bombers have
been practicing test runs for months. Israel realizes it has a small
window of opportunity if it is to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities
before they go “hot” and leakage from an attack causes harmful exposure
to tens of thousands of civilians caught by radiation forced into the
atmosphere by such a raid.
Israel is unlikely to accept Iran’s word that its nuclear program is
meant solely for peaceful purposes and aimed at developing commercial
energy. The possibility of decisive military action is, indeed, high.
What follows is the unfolding of a worst-case scenario, an imaginary yet
all-too-possible depiction of how events might develop if Israel were to
attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Day One: Wednesday
In a pre-dawn raid, undisclosed numbers of Israeli warplanes, taking off
from military airbases in the Negev, destroy Iran’s main nuclear
facility at Bushehr. Israel’s armed forces have released no details, but
it is believed the planes flew over parts of Jordan, northern Saudi
Arabia, and Iraq, refueling in mid-air before reaching their target.
Military analysts speculate that the planes must have refueled somewhere
During the one-hour raid, Iran claims to have shot down “several”
Israeli fighters. Television images show pilots being lynched by furious
mobs before Iranian authorities could reach them. The after-effects of
the raid shake the Arab and Islamic world. Millions take to the streets
demanding immediate action against Israel.
In planning the attack, Israel weighed the threats of Arab and Muslim
reaction. The only other nuclear threat, and a possible danger to
Israel, is Pakistan. Israel considered striking Pakistan’s nuclear
sites, too, but Indian intelligence reports that Pakistan lacks
long-distance delivery for its warheads. Bombay is the farthest they can
reach. Additional reassurance from American intelligence convinced
Israel that as long as Musharraf remains in power, Pakistan does not
represent an imminent threat. The decision was made not to hit Pakistan.
Day Two: Thursday
Believing that Israel would never undertake such actions without U.S.
approval, or at least a tacit nod from the American administration, Iran
retaliates. Thousands of Revolutionary Guards are dispatched across the
border into Iraq with orders to inflict as many casualties on American
troops as possible. Fierce clashes erupt between coalition forces and
Iranians. Within hours, more than 400 U.S. troops are killed, and many
more wounded in heavy fighting. Iranian sleeper agents, who have
infiltrated Iraq since the downfall of Saddam, urge Iraqi Shi’ites into
action. They cut major highways and harass coalition troops, preventing
reinforcements from reaching units under attack. Several helicopters are
Tehran orders the Lebanese Shi’ite movement, Hezbollah, into action
against northern Israel. Hezbollah launches scores of rockets and
mortars against kibbutzim, towns, and settlements. Israel retaliates.
Casualties are high on both sides of the frontier. Tension in the Middle
East reaches a boiling point. In Washington, the Cabinet convenes in an
Massive demonstrations erupt all over the Arab and Islamic world. Crowds
of gigantic proportions take to the streets, ransacking Israeli
embassies in Cairo, Amman, and Ankara. American embassies in a number of
other cities are burned. With police overwhelmed, the military is called
in. Armies open fire, killing hundreds, adding to the outrage.
Day Three: Friday
Following Friday prayers across the Islamic world, crowds incited by
fiery sermons in mosques from Casablanca to Karachi take to the streets
in the worst protests yet. Government buildings are ransacked, and
clashes with security forces result in greater casualties. Martial law
is declared, and curfew imposed, but this fails to prevent further
mayhem and rioting. Islamist groups call for the overthrow of
governments and for immediate military action against Israel.
In Saudi Arabia, Islamist militants engage in open gun battles with
security forces in several cities. The whereabouts of the Saudi royal
family are unknown. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, and a dozen other
countries, crowds continue to run amok, demanding war on Israel.
Day Four: Saturday
A longstanding plan to overthrow Musharraf is carried out by senior
Pakistani army officers loyal to the Islamic fundamentalists and with
close ties to bin Laden. The coup is carried out in utmost secrecy.
Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI—a long-time supporter of the
fundamentalists—in agreement with the plotters, takes control of the
country’s nuclear arsenal and its codes. Within hours, and before news
of the coup leaks out, Pakistan, now run by pro-bin Laden
fundamentalists, loads two nuclear weapons aboard executive Lear jets
that take off from a remote military airfield, headed for Tel Aviv and
Ashdod. Detouring and refueling in east Africa, they approach Israel
from the south. The crafts identify themselves as South African. Their
tail markings match the given identification.
The two planes with their deadly cargo are flown by suicide pilots who,
armed with false flight plans and posing as business executives, follow
the flight path given to them by Israeli air traffic control. At the
last moment, however, the planes veer away from the airfield, soar into
the sky and dive into the outskirts of the two cities, detonating their
nuclear devices in the process.
The rest of this scenario can unfold in a number of ways. Take your
pick; none are encouraging.
Israel retaliates against Pakistan, killing millions in the process.
Arab governments fall. Following days of violence, Syria, Jordan, and
Egypt succumb to Islamist rebels who vow open warfare with Israel. The
Middle East regresses into war, with the fighting claiming hundreds of
thousands of lives. A much-weakened Israel, now struggling for its very
survival, deploys more nuclear weapons, targeting multiple Arab
capitals. The Middle East is in complete mayhem, as the United States
desperately tries to arrange a cease-fire.
This was all a bad dream, or rather one writer’s dark vision of what
might happen if the current situation is allowed to continue unchecked.
What precisely are the chances of any of this coming to pass? The
probability of Israel striking Iran is very real. That could happen at
any moment. As for the rest, there is really no way to know what will
ensue once the demons are unleashed. Events could unfold as described
above, or they could develop a bit differently, give or take a nuke or
two. Whatever the outcome, it will not be good.
The solution is far from evident. Takeyh, the professor of national
security studies, notes that in the past where there have been cases of
“nuclear reversal,” such as in South Africa, it has happened due to a
change in the region’s strategic environment.
The Middle East hardly falls into that category. Iran is unlikely to
give up its nuclear deterrence as long as Israel remains a nuclear
power. Israel is unlikely to cede its nuclear capability as long as it
feels threatened by the Arab/Islamic world and as long as Pakistan holds
on to its bomb. Pakistan, of course, points to India, also a nuclear
power. India looks at Pakistan and across the Himalayas and sees
nuclear-armed China and says it would never give up its cherished
membership to the elite nuclear club.
In his campaign stops, President Bush keeps reiterating that the world
is a safer place because of his actions. Yet looking at the state of
world affairs it is very difficult to agree with him. The dead-ended
Mideast peace talks, Saudi Arabia’s internal turmoil, continuing
Islamist terrorist threats, the vulnerability of American troops in
Iraq, and the question of Iran’s nukes all contribute to maintaining
tensions at an all-time high.
Barring a solid and lasting peace settlement between Israel and its Arab
neighbors, the countries of the Middle East are far from nuclear
disarmament. If anything, nuclear proliferation is only likely to
increase as states like Saudi Arabia find that they, too, need to defend
themselves against a nuclear-armed Iran. Recent reports have indicated
that Saudi Arabia is looking to lease Pakistan’s nukes. The arms race of
the Cold War may be dead, but the race for hot weapons has never been so
Claude Salhani is foreign editor and a political analyst with United
Press International in Washington.
The important question that remains is, what is the appropriate reaction to an Iranian nuclear bomb? Salhani discusses one possible outcome from an Israeli preemptive strike, but what are the alternatives? It's probably too late to stop Iran going ahead with a nuclear program at this point. Arguably the European-led effort at détente with Iran in the late 1990s might have led to that, but it stopped dead by the Bush administration's inclusion of Iran in the axis of evil. In any case, it probably would have not have stopped the Iranians from building the bomb, although it would have probably made them much more reasonable about using it.
I remember that while I was studying international relations, on the right-wing side of theoretical schools stood neo-realism, led by a Berkeley professor called Kenneth Waltz. His argument was that nuclear proliferation was not that big of an issue, because countries that had the bomb would not use it because the retaliation would be disastrous. In essence, Waltz argued that nuclear weapons were unusable weapons in most circumstances: their value was political. (Here's an update on Waltz's thinking on WMDs and "rogue states.") It's hard to be so casual about it in this age of irrational extremism (personally I am much more worried about a former Soviet bomb falling into the wrong hands), but let's hope he was right.