Ahmadinejad, AFP
Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as depicted in a painting by Brazilian artist Gil Vicente. A series by Vicente now on display at the Sao Paulo Art Biennial portrays world leaders. Photo by AFP
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Two weeks ago, as though incidentally, the Pentagon revealed that on January 27-28, 2003, a covert exercise code-named Predominant Challenge was held, the object being to explore “U.S. military and policy responses to potential Israeli military actions resulting from an Iraqi attack on Israel.” The convoluted wording encompassed the stated American intention to attack the regime of Saddam Hussein less than two months later; the assumption that Iraq would react by attacking Israel with missiles armed with chemical or biological warheads; and that this time, in contrast to 1991, the Israel Defense Forces would launch a counteroffensive.

The feared Iraqi attack, as we know, did not materialize, but that did not mean that the Israeli leadership, from prime minister Ariel Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz down, did not have an initial bout of panic at the prospect. It was odd and even amusing to be present in Mofaz’s office, in the old Defense Ministry building, on that first evening of the American offensive. Mofaz ordered the citizens of Israel to open their gas mask kits. Many yawned, doubting the wisdom of that order. Among them was Mofaz’s bureau chief, Brig. Gen ‏(now Maj. Gen‏) Ami Shafran. His worried aunt telephoned for instructions. Shafran reassured her:

There’s no need for the gas mask. He, for example, would not be opening his kit.

The story of Predominant Challenge, whose Israeli contingent was called ‏Eastern Whistle‏, is more than a historical curiosity. The American mindset has not changed; what was true in Iraq will be true in Iran. The method, the approach, the preparations, the pace − the pattern is similar, even if the circumstances are different. Perhaps that is why it was initially decided that a joint chiefs of staff summary of the American operation in Iraq, which was composed a few days after President George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished,” would remain classified and hidden from foreign eyes for a decade, until May 8, 2013.

The beauty of “Operation Iraqi Freedom: History Brief” – which has in fact now been declassified – lies in the time line that it draws: July 2, 2002, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff issues a planning order for possible military operations against Iraq; August 13, American-British operational planning session, to assemble British forces for invading Iraq from Turkey, while the Americans invade from the north; August 29, Bush signs an order to overthrow Saddam Hussein; October 4-5, Centcom holds a war game simulating the overthrow of the Iraqi regime. And so on and so on, until the war itself, which began only in March 2003. In other words, if there is to be an American operation against Iran next year, then the planning and training for it is going on, unseen, right now.

The American document was signed by the director for operations on the joint staff, a three-star general. Under the American system officers advance relatively slowly, up to the rank of colonel, usually when they are in their mid-40s or late 40s. At that stage they undergo a cruel selection − upward or out. The officer who signed the Iraq War document, and thereby revealed the existence of exercise Predominant Challenge, was by now, after seven and a half years, supposed to be retired. But that same director for operations, Norton Schwartz of the U.S. Air Force, retracted his announced retirement at the last minute two years ago, after a surprise appointment to the position of air force chief of staff.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates wanted him, a transport pilot, to enforce his policy, which, among other things, assigns priority to unmanned aircraft, or drones. Three weeks ago, Schwartz gave the keynote address at the annual American Air Force Association Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition. Among other things, he sought to persuade his audience of the central role reserved for air power in the future wars that lie in wait for the American military. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the burden falls mainly on the ground forces of the army and the Marines. Schwartz predicted that the air force will return to its rightful place, as the lead player, in the next show. “[T]he continued spread of weapons of mass destruction and advanced weaponry will disrupt stability, placing our freedom of action in and through the global commons at risk,” he said.

The answer Schwartz proposes to this challenge includes “long-range strike capability” systems, bombers that can each launch dozens of cruise missiles and precision-guided munitions, from a distance and accurately, to any point on the planet. To achieve air superiority, Schwartz hinted, the American leadership would decide to strike first in the next major crisis. Echoing his call a decade ago to include the air force in urban warfare of the kind that took place in the Balkans − “Don’t go downtown without us” was the phrase he used in a paper co-written in 2000 − Schwartz expressed complete faith in the Americans’ ability to “[astonish] the world yet again, in the event that our national leadership orders the U.S. Air Force to lead the way ‘downtown.’” Which town, or, perchance, subterranean and fortified targets on the outskirts of towns, he did not say.

‘We call that proliferation’

General Kevin P. Chilton, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, was even more blunt in his speech at the same conference. Nuclear deterrence, Chilton said, weighs not only on the adversary’s mind, but also on the minds of America’s allies and even the minds of its own leaderships. “Any doubt in the deterrent by an ally who is dependent upon that deterrent could incentivize them to develop their own weapons.

We would call this proliferation. Should that proliferation ever happen, I think we would see proliferation on a scale that we can only imagine today. Or should they lose confidence in that deterrent, they could decide to no longer be aligned with U.S. national interests [...] And of course doubt in the deterrent by a potential adversary could lead to catastrophic miscalculation.”

In the Cold War era there was supreme importance attached to the values and personalities of the various Soviet leaders. Today there are multiple nuclear players, which are led by divergent leaderships. In the Iranian context, for example, the leadership consists of the ayatollahs, headed by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the group around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and perhaps above all the Revolutionary Guards. The balance of internal jostling cannot be predicted with a high degree of reliability. During the Cold War, what hung in the balance, on both sides, were both national survival and the regime’s survival. Thus, through mutual deterrence, stability was attained. The situation today is different, because an entity that fears for the survival of its regime or organization, even though a similar threat does not hover over America, might use nuclear weapons at a time of pressure.

The challenge that Schwartz and Chilton talked about deviates from the primary meaning of nuclear deterrence, should such weaponry come into the hands of a rogue power such as Iran. Any Iranian missile launched would bear fingerprints from the moment it took off, for Tel Aviv or Los Angeles ‏(the West Coast of the United States is closer to Iran than the East‏), and would expose its launchers to severe retaliation, perhaps even nuclear. But a more likely serious threat is that Iran would transfer such weapons to a proxy organization, which would carry out a nuclear terror attack in a major city or fire a missile from a ship’s deck to shore.

Chilton and Schwartz are building the force, in preparation for the decision that will be placed on President Barack Obama’s desk next summer. That is when there will be a convergence of the intelligence timetable ‏(Iranian progress toward the bomb‏), military timetable ‏(start of the gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan‏), diplomatic timetable ‏(recognition of a Palestinian state‏), political timetable ‏(Obama’s decision whether to run for a second term‏), and even personnel timetable ‏(appointing a new secretary of defense, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and national security adviser, ahead of the retirement of Gates, Michael Mullen, and James Jones‏).

An important consideration, of course, will be the desire to keep Israel from embarking on an operation against Iran, whose retaliation would be directed also at American targets. From joint meetings of their air and naval branches with Israel’s air force, the Americans are well aware of its accurate and long-range strike capability.

Tel Nof airbase this week observed the passage of a quarter century since the longest-range Israeli strike − 1,280 miles, or more than 2,000 kilometers. That was Operation Wooden Leg, on October 1, 1985, against the Palestine Liberation Organization’s headquarters in Hammam al-Shatt, Tunisia. The flight, spanning a much greater distance than the sortie to the Iraqi atomic reactor four years earlier, required mid-air refueling. The Tel Nof base commander at the time, Giora Rom, took part in the operation as a full-fledged F-15 pilot, under squadron commander Avner Naveh, who two months later would down two Syrian MIGs in the Israel Air Force’s last aerial battle to date.

A quiet neighborhood in Ashkelon that resembled Tunis was chosen for the purpose of rehearsing the air strike and experiencing an arrival on shore from deep at sea. To facilitate drinking en route, the pilots were equipped with Tropit, an iconic Israeli kiddie juice that comes in a foil bag with a straw. In at least one of the cockpits, when the straw pierced the bag, orange droplets exploded in every direction and stained the canopy almost to the point of obscuring all visibility. Rom’s navigator, who was in charge of releasing the bombs, confessed upon returning that he had suffered nightmares for three nights in a row: In the dreams, all of the squadron’s navigators are dancing around him, gloating and singing, “Didn’t hit, didn’t hit.” He did.

In Washington, as in Tehran, they understand that anyone who flies westward, against the wind, can also fly eastward; and those who did so 25 years ago, can surely do a great deal more in the second decade of the 21st century. This too, added to the appearance of a strife-ridden and weak Israeli leadership, will spur Obama to decide that if the nonviolent effort to thwart Iran’s nuclearization fails, it would be better if Schwartz, not air force commander Maj. Gen Ido Nechushtan, were to take action.