Speculation is growing that Israel will soon attack Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to destroy the Islamic Republic’s nascent atomic energy program.
Threats and counter-threats have been exchanged between Teheran and Jerusalem, while Israel’s western allies, particularly the U.S., has urged the Jewish state to exercise caution, while at the same time suggesting they would support any Israeli military strike.
Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to visit with President Barack Obama in Washington next week to discuss the Iran matter.
What is the likelihood that Israel will indeed attack Iran? And, if it comes to be, what would be the impact?
International Business Times spoke to an expert on Middle East affairs to discuss the topic.
Dilshod Achilov is a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn.
IB TIMES: In the event Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities, what do you see as a worst-case scenario in the aftermath?
ACHILOV: In addition to oil prices soaring and destabilizing the world economy, the three other worst-case scenarios are: (1) the conflict could escalate to involve other (Sunni) Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and might cause a wide-scale sectarian (Sunni vs. Shia) conflict in the Middle East which can claim millions of innocent lives; (2) Iran will be further radicalized and turn to international terrorism (aligning with other terrorist organizations by funding, training and arms supplying) which could even engage civilians targets, particularly in the West (in other words, international terrorism could reach a new dimension and become more dangerous than ever); and (3) the conflict could accelerate the arms race in the Middle East while the competition to attain nuclear weapons can only increase, not decrease.
IB TIMES: How would China and Russia respond to such an attack by Israel?
ACHILOV: In the event of an Israeli attack on Iran, China and Russia would be expected to stand by Teheran and serve as the main arms dealers/suppliers to support the Iranian military.
Iran would have to heavily depend on Russian and Chinese missiles, munitions and other war supplies in the event of an Israeli-Iranian war.
For instance, Iran’s main air defense mechanisms are based on Russian-made systems. China has vested interests in Iran, both economically and strategically, with significant military cooperation.
As Russia and China remain the two key supporters of Bashar al -Assad’s regime in Syria today, we can expect the same or similar reaction toward Iran if a war erupts in the Persian Gulf.
IB TIMES: Most of the Arab world (especially Saudi Arabia) are opposed to Iran and also fear Teheran’s nuclear ambitions. Would they silently cheer if Israel launched strikes against Iran? Or would they oppose such an offensive?
ACHILOV: Most of the Arab countries are very concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It appears that Saudi Arabia tacitly approves an immediate attack on Iranian installations as the Wikileaks documents suggest.
At the same time, however, the Arab countries are worried that a possible war could spill over into their own territories causing a wide scale destabilization in the entire region.
On the premise that the U.S. military has certain unique military capabilities and far better chances to get the job done compared with Israel acting alone, Saudi Arabia would probably favor the U.S. taking the shots to eradicate Iran’s nuclear sites.
There are many questions revolving around Israel’s technical capability to effectively halt the Iranian nuclear program. Many analysts agree that an Israeli attack can only delay, not eradicate, Tehran’s nuclear program.
IB TIMES: Israel has previously destroyed nuclear facilities in Syria and Iraq. Did those actions prompt any kind of retaliation?
ACHILOV: Israel carried out a near-flawless air assault on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear sites in 1981 and 2007, respectively. The goal was to disrupt the nuclear ambitions of Saddam Hussein and Assad – a goal which was essentially realized.
When Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981, Saddam did not retaliate until 1991 during the Gulf War. A few dozen of Russian-made Scud missiles landed in Israel inflicting some damage and casualties.
On the other hand, after Israel destroyed Syria’s secret nuclear facility in 2007, Syria did not retaliate. Rather, the Syrian regime denied that there was any nuclear facility there to begin with.
IB TIMES: Geographically, Iran is much further away from Israel than Iraq or Syria. Isn’t it impractical for Israel to even attempt strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities? They would have to fly over hostile territory and make repeated sorties.
ACHILOV: Attacking Iran cannot be compared with the previous missions/strikes in Iraq (1981) nor Syria (2007). The main challenges for Israel are: (1) Iranian nuclear sites are too far away; (2) the Iranian facilities are well protected by Russian-made (TOR-M1) air defense systems; (3) and some sites are built deep underground.
The most probable route for Israeli jets would be to fly over Jordanian and Iraqi airspace. The experts argue that Israel would need to deploy more than 100 jets that can refuel in mid-air.
To attack Iran’s well-protected nuclear sites, Israeli aircraft would have to travel over hostile territories, fight off Iranian interceptors, destroy or jam air defense systems, deliver precision strikes and come back to repeat the same sequence multiple times.
When all the odds are added, the risks for Israel are rather high.
IB TIMES: What role might Turkey (Israel’s erstwhile ally and Iran’s enemy) play following an attack on Iran?
ACHILOV: Turkey does not want a nuclear-armed Iran in its backyard. On the other hand, Ankara does not support a military option which could destabilized the region with unpredictable outcomes.
In the event of an Israeli attack, however, Turkey would probably focus on ending the conflict as soon as possible by acting as a chief mediator between Tehran and the West.
It is not a coincidence that Turkey hosted the latest talks on the Iranian nuclear standoff by playing an active role in mediating between Tehran and the West.
In a similar vein, Turkey would have to rely on its diplomacy to help reach a cease-fire as soon as possible.
IB TIMES: Might Iran use its Hezbollah and Hamas proxy armies to launch retaliatory strikes on Israel of Tehran itself is too far away to attack Israel directly?
ACHILOV: Should an Israeli-Iranian war erupt in the near future, the likelihood of Hezbollah of getting involved in the conflict is rather high.
Hamas, on the other, is a different story. I don’t think Hamas would join in the fight on behalf of Iran simply because Hamas would not cut its ties with the other Arab countries over Iran. Hamas would probably stay neutral.
On the other hand, it is also possible that Israel may pre-emptively attack Hezbollah at the same time it attacks Iranian sites.
Indeed, the Lebanese defense minister, Fayez Ghosn, met with Iran’s top leaders (including Mahmud Ahmadinejad) on February 27 and discussed defense cooperation between Tehran and Beirut. The visit was symbolic but did send a warning to Tel-Aviv. Referring to the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese conflict, Ghosn warned Israel that the Lebanese army and Hezbollah would work together to fight Israel if Lebanon is attacked. This visit symbolized the nature of cooperation between Beirut and Tehran.