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As Vienna talks continue, Israel prepares for possible war against Iran, Hezbollah

Working in all directions against a nuclearized Iran, the Israeli air force prepares itself for different scenarios.
Israeli Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi takes part in a candle lightning ceremony with Israeli soldiers on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, Jerusalem, Nov. 29, 2021.

Never, to the best of our knowledge, has an incumbent Mossad chief publicly issued such a pronouncement, but on Nov. 2, the spy agency’s director David Barnea pledged that Iran would never have nuclear weapons. “It’s clear that there’s no need for uranium enriched to 60% for civilian purposes,” he said at a ceremony honoring outstanding Mossad agents. “There’s no need for three enrichment sites. There’s no need for thousands of active centrifuges — unless, that is, there is an intention to develop nuclear weapons. … Iran will not have nuclear weapons — not in the coming years, not ever. That is my promise, that is Mossad’s promise.”

Barnea leaves next week for talks in the United States against the backdrop of growing US-Israeli tensions over the Iranian nuclear issue. The Americans, according to a front-page Nov. 3 headline in the mass circulation Yedioth Ahronoth, are demanding that Israel freeze all clandestine and intelligence activity designed to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program during the ongoing Vienna negotiations so as to avoid undermining the talks with Tehran. Israel, claims the report, is refusing to commit itself.

Meanwhile, Barnea’s declaration is drawing quite a bit of criticism, in Israel, too. “The only one who can make such a commitment is the United States,” a senior Israeli source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Only a world power of the stature of the United States has the ability to make such a promise.” However, the United States has already issued such pledges publicly many times, and no one in Israel believes them any longer.

Barnea’s statement came on the heels of dramatic pronouncements by Israel’s top leaders — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and President Isaac Herzog — on the Nov. 29 opening day of the Vienna talks. Defense Minister Benny Gantz also addressed the issue this week, saying, “The military option must always be on the table. It is, of course, the last thing we want to use but we do not have the right to not prepare that option for ourselves.” Bennett, for his part, spoke Dec. 1 with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging the powers yet again not to surrender to Iran’s “nuclear blackmail.”

While talk on the Iran issue has been plentiful in recent weeks, the Israelis, Iranians, Americans and the entire world are wondering whether the verbal assault could be translated into action. In fact, what is the “military option” Israel keeps raising? Has Israel preserved or developed the capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure? Is it capable of doing so?

History is the only dimension that will provide the answer at some point. In real time, Israel is on an extensive multibillion-dollar shopping spree to expand its arsenal of “smart” bunker buster bombs (JDam precision munitions and others) and is beefing up its stock of Tamir Iron Dome missile defense interceptors. The shopping list indicates clearly that Israel is preparing for war, not only vis-a-vis Iran but also with Hezbollah.

Israel has been guided by two approaches on Iran over the years.

The first is to block Iran’s nuclear option by any and every means, a goal it has achieved with dizzying success. While Iran’s nuclear ambitions were first detected in 1991, Israel has stopped it from reaching its target for over 30 years, a tremendous achievement of historic proportions.

According to the second approach, a power of Iran’s dimensions will achieve nuclear capacity one way or another if it is sufficiently determined to do so. Iran, according to almost all assessments, is not only sufficiently determined, it is overly determined. Nonetheless, it prefers reaching its goal “in one piece,” meaning with slow and cunning steps rather than with fast and furious ones. This is the point at which Israel now finds itself.

Israel destroyed the nuclear reactors of Iraq and Syria in two single daring air force strikes. Iran is a different case altogether. There are no reactors. There is a uranium enrichment infrastructure and facilities spread throughout the huge country, at least one of them, in Fordo, heavily fortified under a massive mountain. It is considered indestructible barring a prolonged, pounding with bunker busting munitions that only the United States owns.

Israel has been trying for years to come up with creative ideas to overcome these and other physical obstacles. The distance, which is supposed to greatly hamper its air force in reaching Iranian skies appears less of a problem now that Israel has stable relations and cooperation with quite a few Gulf countries and with Azerbaijan.

“Even if we are unable to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in one fell swoop,” a former senior Israeli intelligence official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I have no doubt we could cause it great damage and delay the whole thing for a year or two, perhaps for even longer.” Asked whether Israel would risk a “world war” with Iran and Hezbollah to achieve a limited delay of a year or two, the source answered, “Perhaps. If and when the sword is on our neck, we will do everything possible, take all the risks and not let them get there. It is an existential question.”

The conclusion one can derive from the above-described developments is not necessarily that Israel is readying for a slam-bang operation to destroy the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, but rather that it is considering a “war of attrition.” In other words, every time the Iranians restore what has been destroyed and move ahead, Israel might strike again. Are these hollow or serious threats? As already mentioned, only time will tell. One thing is certain, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli air force (IAF) are preparing speedily.

IAF Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, who leaves office next summer, granted an extensive interview on Nov. 2 to Channel 13 News, which included several minutes of flight footage showing jet fighters in every conceivable position and implicit talk of the option shaping up to bomb in Iran. IDF Chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi instructed Norkin several months ago to dust off long-dormant plans and prepare the military option. “Iran has been prioritized and the chief of staff has directed us to improve our readiness as far as the third circle is concerned and our in-depth plans,” Norkin admitted.

The “third circle” and the “depth” are Israeli euphemisms for Iran. The IDF has even appointed a general in charge of the “depth command.” Norkin told his interviewer, Alon Ben David, that the IAF would exercise in the coming years for “different situations related to long flights, in-depth flight, a flight with only a partial picture of the threats involved, with the squadron leader very far in terms of communications. With all these elements, we will improve our readiness.”

Asked whether the IAF is capable of removing the Iranian threat, Norkin would not react to it directly. Instead, he said that if it comes to it, the IDF will explain what it is capable of doing and carrying out. The military and political leaderships would then have to decide whether the expected achievements are sufficient. “Regardless of the different scenarios, and I hope it does not come to any fighting at any arena, we must always be ready with a military option. And this is why the issue has been placed high on the agenda.”

Norkin then added, “The IAF is the insurance policy of the State of Israel. I cannot say that we don’t do any mistakes, but I can say that we constantly keep learning [from our mistakes], and that we keep becoming better, preparing ourselves to the scenarios Israel might be facing. When the time comes, we will do whatever is needed.”

The only question left is the cost. If Hezbollah enters into an all-out war with Israel the minute the IAF strikes in Iran, Israel would be vulnerable to the greatest destruction and damage it has ever known (and at the same time restore Lebanon to the Stone Age, as it has threatened). Interestingly, some in Israel now believe that Hezbollah would not necessarily or automatically choose to take on Israel. “Under certain circumstances,” a senior security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “[Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan] Nasrallah could decide to stay out of it or to join only in limited and symbolic fashion.”