TEL AVIV – With diplomatic efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s defense minister has ordered his troops to prepare a military option, warning the world that Israel would take matters into its own hands if it launches a new nuclear agreement would not sufficiently restrict Iran.
But several current and former senior Israeli military officials and experts say Israel is incapable of carrying out an attack that could destroy or even significantly slow down Iran’s nuclear program, at least not in the short term. A current senior security official said it would take at least two years to prepare an attack that could cause significant damage to Iran’s nuclear project.
A smaller-scale strike, which would damage parts of the program without ending it completely, would be more feasible, experts and officials say. But a broader effort to destroy the dozens of nuclear sites in distant parts of Iran — the kind of attack Israeli officials have threatened — would be beyond the current resources of Israel’s armed forces.
“It’s very difficult — I would say impossible — to launch a campaign that would take care of all these sites,” said Relik Shafir, a retired Israeli Air Force general who piloted a 1981 attack on an Iraqi nuclear facility.
“In the world we live in, the United States Air Force is the only air force that can campaign,” he said.
The recent discussion of a military strike on Iran is part of an Israeli pressure campaign to ensure that countries negotiating with Iran in Vienna do not agree to what Israeli officials consider “a bad deal,” a deal they say. Iran would not prevent the development of nuclear weapons.
At the moment, that seems unlikely, as talks aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran have only slowed since Iran’s new, hard-line government rejoined them last month.
So far, Israel has tried to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which it sees as an existential threat, through a combination of aggressive diplomacy and clandestine attacks. Israeli officials considered it a coup when they convinced President Donald J. Trump to pull out of the 2015 deal, which President Biden now wants to save.
Israel has also waged a shadow war through espionage, targeted assassinations, sabotage and cyberattacks — smaller operations it has never formally claimed. Israel secretly considered launching large-scale airstrikes in 2012 before abandoning the plan.
But as Iran’s nuclear enrichment program approaches weapons level, Israeli politicians have been warning increasingly openly about what the world has long assumed: that Israel could turn to open warfare if Iran were allowed to make progress toward developing a nuclear-powered nuclear weapon. weapon, a target Iran denies.
In September, the head of the Israeli Defense Forces, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, said large parts of a military budget increase had been allocated to preparing an attack on Iran. Earlier this month, Mossad chief David Barnea said Israel would “do anything” to prevent Iran from making an atomic bomb.
This month, during a visit to the United States, Defense Secretary Benny Gantz publicly announced that he had ordered the Israeli military to prepare for a possible military attack on Iran.
But Israeli experts and military officials say Israel is currently unable to deal a knockout blow through Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran has dozens of nuclear sites, some deep underground that would be difficult for Israeli bombs to penetrate and destroy quickly, Shafir said. The Israeli Air Force does not have fighter jets large enough to carry the latest bunker-busting bombs, so the more protected sites would have to be hit repeatedly with less effective missiles, a process that could take days or even weeks, Mr Shafir added.
A current senior security official said Israel is currently unable to cause significant damage to the underground facilities in Natanz and Fordow.
Such an effort would be complicated by a shortage of tanker aircraft. The ability to refuel is crucial for a bomber who may have to travel more than 2,000 miles round trip, crossing Arab countries that wouldn’t want to be a refueling stop for an Israeli attack.
Israel has ordered eight new KC-46 tankers from Boeing at a cost of $2.4 billion, but the planes have been backordered and Israel is unlikely to receive even one before the end of 2024.
Aside from the ability to hit the targets, Israel would have to fend off Iranian fighter jets and air defense systems at the same time.
Any attack on Iran would also likely lead to retaliatory attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, allies of Iran who would try to force Israel into a war on several fronts at once.
Iran’s defense capabilities are also much stronger than in 2012, when Israel last seriously considered attacking. Its nuclear sites are better fortified and it has more surface-to-surface missiles that can be launched quickly from tunnels.
“It is entirely possible that when the Israeli planes try to land back in Israel, they will find that the Iranian missiles have destroyed their runways,” said Tal Inbar, an aviation expert and former head of the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies. , an aviation-focused research group.
However, other military experts say Israel could still take out key elements of Iran’s nuclear apparatus even without newer aircraft and equipment.
“It’s always good to replace a 1960 car with a brand new 2022 car,” said Amos Yadlin, a former Air Force general who also took part in the 1981 strike. “But we have refueling capabilities. We have bunker breakers. We have one of the best air forces in the world. We have very good intelligence on Iran. We can do it.
“Can the US Air Force do better? definitive. They have a much more capable air force. But they don’t have the will.”
He warned that he would only support a strike as a last resort.
Israeli officials refuse to discuss the red lines Iran must cross to justify a military strike. However, a senior defense official said that if Iran started enriching uranium to 90 percent purity, weapons-grade fuel, Israel would be obliged to step up its actions. US officials have said Iran is currently enriching uranium to 60 percent purity.
The fact that it could take years to ramp up a program to conduct a massive air campaign against Iran should come as no surprise to Israeli military officials. When Israel contemplated such an attack in 2012, preparations for it took more than three years, Israeli officials said.
But the distance between the current government’s threats and its ability to carry them out has drawn criticism of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who led Israel’s government until last June and has been a staunch advocate for a tougher approach to Iran. .
Since 2015, training for an attack on Iran had slowed, a senior Israeli military official said, as the defense institute focused on clashes with militias in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.
In 2017, the Israeli Air Force decided to replace its tanker planes, but the Netanyahu government did not order them until last March.
And another senior military official said the military had asked Mr. Netanyahu for additional funds since 2019 to improve Israel’s ability to attack Iran, but was rejected.
In a statement, Mr. Netanyahu’s office said the opposite was true, that it was Mr Netanyahu who pushed for more resources and energy for an attack on Iran, while military leaders insisted on spending most of their budget on other things. to spend and the preparations delayed. to attack Iran.
“Without the political, operational and budgetary actions led by Prime Minister Netanyahu over the past decade, Iran would have long had an arsenal of nuclear weapons,” the statement added.
Whether or not Mr. Netanyahu has restricted funding, experts have said the money under discussion would not have significantly changed the military’s ability to attack Iran.
“You can always improve – buy more refueling planes, newer, bigger loads of fuel,” Mr Shafir said. But even with these improvements and a superior air force, he said, Israeli air strikes would not end Iran’s nuclear program.
However, they would likely set the region on fire.
Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv, and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem. Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad from Haifa, Israel.