Politics, World

As Middle East War looms large, history still matters

As Middle East War looms large, history still matters

In the wake of the deeply troubling 1961 and ‘62 Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises, nuclear war strategist Herman Kahn set out to write his most influential and disturbing book, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios. Deconstructing the mysteries of military escalation, Kahn explored how at every rung of an escalatory ladder, opposing leaders make decisions on the basis of choices – some clear and obvious, others obscure – but all of them are options rather than inevitabilities. Nearly 50 years ago, Kahn argued nuclear war – just like any other conflict – was unlikely to happen by accident or blind chance; rather, nations elect to climb the ladder to extinction on the basis of calculations and conscious choice. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

Written right at the height of the Cold War, Kahn’s writing has deeply affected generations of military and nuclear warfare strategists in the US and beyond. Along the way, of course, he also had the misfortune to be one of the models for Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove – along with Henry Kissinger and Edward Teller, with perhaps a dollop of Werner von Braun – the main character in the eponymous film who led America to the logical yet apocalyptic top step of the escalatory ladder.

Now, there is also another flashback to yet another time, 2,000 years earlier, just as the Roman Empire’s vast army was methodically advancing up the steep slopes of the Masada fortress in the Judean wilderness. Historian Flavius Josephus described how the commander of the Jewish revolt, Eleazer ben Yair, had contemplated his own ominous decision tree after he was backed into an impossible corner in the final redoubt.

As Josephus wrote in his history, The Jewish War, (written after Josephus himself had deserted to the invading Romans), “…Eleazar had no intention of slipping out himself, or of allowing anyone else to do so. He saw his wall going up in flames; he could think of no other means of escape or heroic endeavour; he had a clear picture of what the Romans would do to men, women and children if they won the day; and death seemed to him the right choice for them all.”

Both of these impulses – plus a few other dangerous ones – may now be animating the decision-making in Tehran, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – and Washington as well. In moments like these, history still matters.

As for background for that first impulse, decades before the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the US and Japan had drawn up battle plans for a decisive naval battle that would have pitted opposing squadrons of battleships in one decisive battle to determine who would rule the Pacific Ocean basin. In fact, the two plans were uncanny mirror images of one another. But those massive battleships were quickly shunted aside to be pre-invasion bombardment platforms after the naval revolution that came out of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

Military planners do their thing – military plans are superbly detailed, but they usually only survive until the fighting begins. In the same way as in all confrontations, military imponderables now confront the major actors in the increasingly problematic standoff between Iran on the one side, and Israel and much of the West on the other. Now stay with us on this – it may be a bit complicated, but it’s important.

Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, the country’s strategic doctrine has been rooted in two connected themes: the country is small (about the size of Kruger Park) and it has been surrounded by hostile nations for the greater part of its existence. Israeli defence strategists define anything that negatively impacts upon these two geographical concepts as contributory to a potential existential crisis for Israel. Anything that lessens the impact of these geographical facts becomes a net positive – at least in the short term.

Right from the beginning, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion set out the doctrine that air dominance was the means by which these two geographical axioms would be minimised: “Dominance in the air, more than any other factor, will ensure us victory, and vice versa.” This in turn has implied intense short wars, sometimes on multiple fronts, but designed to produce victories that were centred on the overwhelming strength of Israeli Air Force (IAF).

Retired general and policy analyst Asaf Agmon adds “Israel faces growing security challenges, some of which are existential. Strategic changes are taking place in our region – most to our detriment. The IAF must play a key role in shaping Israel’s strategy since, in most scenarios, the Air Force will be the only branch able to provide a solution… When the political echelon faces a strategic decision… then IAF commanders must be counted on to present them with detailed alternatives.”

This strategic doctrine was already in place well before the cold peace that followed the Yom Kippur War. It has remained crucial at the strategic level, even as ground forces have shouldered the bulk of the responsibility of dealing with an unwilling subject population in both the West Bank and in Gaza.

That other imperative, the not-so-faint palimpsest of the historical memory of Masada may also be helping nourish a near-eschatological sensibility vis-a-vis Iranian nuclear developments and their presumed ultimate goal – but this time without the same result on that Judean hilltop two millennia ago. For Israelis, their deterrence strategy has been their preparedness to use force quickly to defend the country proactively – as well as a tacit understanding that the country’s well-known but not publicly enunciated nuclear capability stands ready – if needs be. But travel 1,500km east, however, and a rather different strategic doctrine seems to have emerged in Tehran.

Repeated ritualised calls by Iranian leaders for the abolition of the Israeli state (regardless of whether or not these statements also imply the actual destruction of Israeli society and its people), taken together with a series of steps leading to the development of nuclear materials, as well as tests of long-range missiles, represent a form of belligerent strategic ambiguity. Together, these two opposing strategic doctrines do not represent a stable balance – and they seem instead to be reciprocally feeding each other’s concerns, fears, uncertainties – and ambitions.

Photo: The leader and founder of the Iranian Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, speaks from a balcony of the Alavi school in Tehran during the country’s revolution in February 1979. REUTERS.

It surely has been no coincidence Israelis chose a moment right in the middle of this slowly gathering crisis – just before Benyamin Netanyahu is due to meet with Barack Obama at the White House, to meet American congressmen and speak to uber-lobby group, AIPAC (the American Israel Political Action Committee) at its annual meeting – to give media tours of its newest, ultra-sophisticated underground shelter in Tel Aviv. The Associated Press reports “Underneath the plaza outside Israel’s Habima national theater, Israel has put the finishing touches on a new gathering place that it hopes will never host a crowd: the country’s most advanced public underground bomb shelter.”

“The shelter, four stories underground and with space for 1,600 people, is usually a parking lot. It is also part of Tel Aviv’s elaborate civil defence infrastructure. City officials have been beefing up shelters and emergency services in recent months at a time of rising tensions with Iran and militant groups in the Gaza Strip. Recent talk of conflict with Iran has given the safety measures extra relevance.”

Shelters are not new to major Israeli cities to be sure, but signalling their hardening and increased sophistication becomes a part of the deterrence equation – even if the country’s officials insist the timing is pure coincidence.

But given Iranian statements that any attacks on its nuclear facilities would generate devastating retaliatory responses, the Israelis are just as clearly sending their own interesting signals. The Tel Aviv area, of course, is a tempting target for Iran in all this – unlike Jerusalem with its religious sites holy to Islam as well. In speaking to the media, Tel Aviv city councilman Moshe Tiomkin warned that if Iran targeted Tel Aviv, the results would be destructive on his town. Unlike Iraq’s rocket attacks back in 1991 the first Gulf War, Tiomkin said that this time around “I believe this time we are not talking about 40 rockets. It would be far, far more.” All told, Tel Aviv shelters can now take accommodate a quarter of a million people.

Back in 1981, Israeli jets pummelled Iraq’s Osirak reactor into rubble on the theory that Saddam Hussein’s scientists were moving to develop nuclear technology for military purposes in their French-constructed reactor. Whether their goal was to create an actual atomic bomb, a sub-critical, radioactive dirty bomb, or simply the plausible threat of one was never clear – but the Israelis were straightforward in carrying out the logical conclusions of their strategic doctrine.

Similarly, Israel’s more recent attack on the ultra-secret Syrian nuclear facility in late 2007 was designed to pre-empt the possibilities of nuclear capabilities in another nation nearby that would have upended the implicit strategic balance in Israel’s immediate geographical region. The actual purposes of the Syrian reactor were even less clear – and there were even rumours it was somehow part of Iranian atomic efforts as well. This was the broad strategic background.

In both cases, however, the tactical implications of those attacks were much more clear-cut than in the – so far – hypothetical case of raids on Iranian facilities. Both the Iraqi and Syrian targets were well within the operational range of Israeli aircraft, there was only one facility each in the Iraqi or Syrian cases, and neither facility was located below ground. Iran’s facilities present a very different landscape.

The Iranian circumstances offer very different tactical challenges to any significant Israeli air action against them, say experts. If Israel actually attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities, the strike would almost certainly involve a complex air assault that would use dozens of planes that would need to overcome Iranian air defences virtually completely and then, simultaneously, attack as many as a dozen separate dozen targets. This is no mean thing even for a well-trained force like the IAF. Charles Wald, the now-retired US Air Force general who led the coalition air war that helped bring to an end Taliban rule in Afghanistan says “This would be way more sophisticated than anything that’s ever been done before.” Wald adds this type of attack would not be “surgical”, despite the flip depictions of such a raid by some of America’s more bellicose politicians.

Moreover, it should not be assumed that the Iranians have failed to study the Syrian and Iraqi attacks – or Pearl Harbor for that matter. Colin Kahl, a Georgetown University professor and former Pentagon official who previously oversaw Middle East issues explains that Israeli pilots would be flying into a complex net of radar and anti-aircraft missiles all specifically designed to protect Iranian nuclear facilities and its airspace. Nonetheless, Kahl says “The Israelis are extraordinarily creative. Nobody knows exactly how they would do it.” Including the Iranians, of course.
Specifically, analysts describe the following operational challenges for any Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities:


Israeli F-15s and F-16s would be at the very outside limit of their range or beyond it, depending on the route chosen and their flight speed, altitude of approach and payloads carried. As a result, the Israelis would either have to use aerial refuelling or land somewhere en-route to refuel. What country would permit that is obviously open to serious question – even if just tacit permission is given in order to allow for a covert refuelling facility in the desert. Alternatively, aerial refuelling efforts come with their own challenges. The IAF only has four KC-130 tankers – sending them aloft over hostile air space would mean committing yet more fighter craft to protect them. IAF operational fighter craft total around 350 F-15s and F-16s and most of these would probably be drawn into this effort. Maps indicate that flying over Iraq is the most direct route and the Iraqis have no significant air defence capability. Accordingly, that could constitute the best route and the one with the most surprise built into it.

Air defences

Experts say Israeli aircraft could probably penetrate Iranian air defences, but that would then require yet additional aircraft to jam radar and do all the other things that disrupt air defences – leaving the IAF’s other tasks in national airspace protection potentially under- or uncovered. One expert on air defence systems jokes that the Iranians are “not using wax pencils on glass. They have updated computerised modern air defences.” Fortunately for the Israelis, perhaps, the Russians decided not to sell them their sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missiles in 2010 that would have bumped Iran’s anti-aircraft defences up to a new level of competence.


Israel already has large bunker buster bombs in its arsenal suitable for attacking some underground or hardened sites, but analysts argue that they would need yet additional sophisticated weapons to target some of the best-protected facilities and complete the assigned task. Experts say Israel has US-built GBU-28 bunker busters, those nearly 2,000kg bombs that can deal with hardened targets. Accordingly, making the first assault do the job would be critical – a lengthy operation would raise the likelihood alternatively of invoking US opposition to further attacks or triggering a much wider regional conflict.

Regardless of their best planning and execution, “They will probably only get one strike,” says Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. If all of this begins to sound like what must have been the debate within the Japanese military headquarters prior to Pearl Harbour, perhaps it should, since such an Israeli strike could well generate the Middle Eastern version of the sleeping tiger Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had warned about waking up, even as he designed the attack in 1941 that he believed could the US on the defence for two years.

General Wald adds further complexity and uncertainty to any discussion about an attack, arguing that carrying out the raid in full could well mean needing phased attacks over several weeks, thereby generating the momentum that would bring Iran to attack US facilities in the region or even further afield – such as interfering vigorously with commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. About 17% of oil traded in the entire world passes through this narrow space, representing a major chokepoint for the world economy. Then, of course, there is the danger of Iranian retaliation via its regional surrogates – Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, both attacking Israeli targets.

If all of this was not enough to worry about, there is the possibility that an attack on Iran could trigger major power involvement – the US on the side of Israel and the Russians or even the Chinese on the side of the Iranians. After all, one of Iran’s major nuclear facilities was completed by Russia. Even further down the road, there is the question of how such an Israeli attack – with or without American support materially, by radar jamming or even secret in-flight refuelling – would affect US positions in Afghanistan and Pakistan – and, inevitably, how the uncertainties of such a larger conflict would affect the US election.

Finally, of course, there is the question of what would happen and how the US could or would react if things went horribly wrong from the Israeli point of view. This is where Josephus’ saga swims back into view – only this time with WMD in the mix as the final defence of the redoubt. The whole thing begins to looks like a giant, dangerous version of the children’s game of pick-up-sticks – except the consequences for doing it wrong becomes orders of magnitude more serious than in the playroom.

Over a century ago, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had warned his emperor of the dangers in the alliance structure he had largely been responsible for creating – saying that a European war, if it happened, “will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” The Middle East may not much better right now. And we haven’t even considered the impact of instability in many of the Arab states in the region in this evaluation.

It is for these reasons, then, that Barack Obama has been so insistent on boxing in those presumed Iranian nuclear ambitions within a web of international inspections and six-party talks, as well as via banking sanctions, US naval manoeuvres and yet other sticks. The carrots are, of course, the promise of reversing these efforts.

The nub of the problem is whether the Israelis will come to see their basic national interests are at stake in all this – and if they then conclude that time is fast running past the point where even a difficult, dangerous, and uncertain air strike would have a nugatory effect on what they perceive as that looming existential threat – the nuclear Masada moment.

The Washington Post reported the other day that back in 1996, Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister had warned Iran was on the path to atomic weapons and he had been urging the US to “stop the nuclearisation of terrorist states.” Sixteen years on, Netanyahu seems to have brought the West along on this cause, pushing Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the pinnacle of the international strategic security agenda. Now in his second term as prime minister, Netanyahu believes he is facing “what could prove to be the most critical decision of his career, weighing whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, possibly over the objections of his staunchest ally in Washington. Israel’s next moves, as international sanctions on Iran gather steam, are expected to be the focus of Netanyahu’s planned March 5 meeting with President Obama at the White House.”

Meanwhile, “While Defence Minister Ehud Barak has warned that Iran’s nuclear program could soon enter a  zone of immunity  in which its facilities would be protected underground from military strikes, aides and analysts familiar with Netanyahu’s thinking say he views the problem in more fundamental terms. They say the prime minister approaches the Iranian challenge with a sense of history and a profound conviction that he is fighting to prevent another Holocaust, a modern-day threat of annihilation against the Jewish state.”

Throughout all of this, despite digging their heels in on various inspection efforts, the Iranians have insisted their nuclear programme is not aimed at creating weapons; a determination American analysts have been reluctant to contradict directly – so far.

How Obama handles his portion of this delicately weighted balance may well determine his place in history – let alone whether he gives way to a Republican. Regardless of whether it is Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum or someone else, the Republicans have all (save for Ron Paul) tied their judgment about Iran to Israel’s determinations of Iranian intentions.

Reaching across those two millennia, Flavius Josephus, writing about the results after the Romans had finally brought the Jewish revolt to an end, would write that “for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again.” DM

Read more:

  • After years of sounding the alarm, Israel’s Netanyahu focuses world attention on Iran in the Washington Post.
  • Israel unveils sophisticated shelters in Tel Aviv at the AP website.
  • Syria, Iran and the Obama Doctrine in The New York Times.
  • U.S. Agencies See No Move by Iran to Build a Bomb in the New York Times.
  • U.S. Sees Iran Attacks as Likely if Israel Strikes in The New York Times.
  • Israeli attack on Iran would be complex operation in USA Today.
  • 1981: Israel bombs Baghdad nuclear reactor at the BBC.
  • Imagining an Israeli Strike on Iran in The New York Times.
  • Is Israel preparing to attack Iran? In the Washington Post.
  • US, Britain urge Israel not to attack Iran as White House security adviser arrives in the Washington Post.
  • How history lessons could deter Iranian aggression in the Washington Post.
  • Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities at Harvard University’s Belfer Center website.
  • Operation Opera at Wikipedia.
  • The test of talking to Iran at the Washington Post.
  • All Quiet on the Eastern Front? Israel’s National Security Doctrine After the Fall of Saddam at the Brookings Institution Saban Center website.
  • Responsibility Lies with the Israeli Air Force at the website.
  • The Story of ‘Operation Orchard’How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor at Der Spiegel (English).
  • What did Israel bomb in Syria? at the New Yorker (Seymour Hersh’s exhaustive article on the attack).
  • Formerly secret telexes reveal Iran’s early use of deceit in nuclear program at the Washington Post.
  • Obama’s Iran options (Michael Gerson’s column from the right).
  • Gulf War III isn’t an option (Eugene Robinson’s column from the left).
  • Attacking Iran at the Economist.
  • Nuclear diplomacy Stalled Iran is unforthcoming on its nuclear programme—and unwilling to slow it down at the Economist.
  • Table Talk at the New Yorker.
  • Iran’s underground nuclear sites not immune to U.S. bunker-busters, experts say in the Washington Post.
  • How to Beat Obama – The president is far more vulnerable than he thinks on foreign policy (by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie) in Foreign Policy.
  • Making Iran a Campaign Issue May Not Prove Easy for the GOP in Time.

Photo: Prime Minister Golda Meir (R) accompanied by her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, meets with Israeli soldiers at a base on the Golan Heights after intense fighting during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel was simultaneously attacked by Syria and Egypt on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement when all of Israel comes to a standstill, and was only able to defeat both countries when the United States provided an emergency major resupply of equipment. Israel suffered heavy causalities and many Israelis were angered at the country’s unpreparedness. REUTERS. 


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