ANALYSIS How Israel's War With Iran Will Be Fought

Iran regime's Shiite ideology will dictate a prolonged war that will be measured in years, not days.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It is precisely from the events of the passing week, which culminated in an impressive show of force reminiscent of the good old Israel Defense Forces - the IDF that carried out Entebbe and bombed the reactors in Iraq and in Syria - that Israel can glean an important lesson about the limitations of the power at its disposal. These are the limitations dictated by U.S. President Barack Obama: Israel's navy can intercept weapons shipments from Iran, Israel's Military Intelligence can expose Hamas long-range missile tests from Gaza, but at least for the time being, as long as the international community is conducting dialogue with Tehran over its controversial nuclear program, it is best that Israel doesn't do too much to annoy the adults.

The interception of hundreds of tons of weapons, believed to be an Iranian shipment meant for Hezbollah, in the Mediterranean on Wednesday wasn't any different from similar operations carried out by the U.S. Navy, twice this year, though Israel seized a significantly larger amount of weapons. Therefore, the display of the loot the IDF invited everyone to see at the Ashdod port on Thursday received a lukewarm welcome by the world media. It is great that Israel is uncovering and seizing Iranian weapons, the world leaders must be telling themselves, but is there anything here that we didn't know well before the Israeli commandos raided the Antigua-flagged ship in the middle of the night?

The execution by Israeli forces was impeccable, that's true. The IDF apparently followed the arms shipment for a long time, identified the correct ship and planned the operation which went off without a hitch. Now comes the part of diplomacy and public relations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who will be visiting Washington in the coming days, will be accompanied by intelligence officials who will present the details of the operation to their American colleagues, along with all the necessary proof that Iran is continuing to support terror despite Tehran's denials, and in blatant violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

On the public relations front Israel has gained some ground in light of the fact that both the seizure of the arms ship and the exposure of the Hamas missile test occurred right before the United Nations General Assembly debate on the Goldstone report, which accused Israel of having committed war crimes in Gaza last winter. While the IDF is being accused of war crimes, and the Goldstone report argues that the Israeli offensive was designed specifically to punish the Palestinian civilian population, it doesn't hurt to bring to the forefront the background to these allegations: the ongoing Iranian effort to arm terror organizations with rockets meant to kill Israeli civilians.

But, that's approximately it. Israel is allowed to pester Hamas and Hezbollah with intelligence maneuvers, initiate brilliant pinpoint operations, block their supply of weapons and expose Iran and its proxies - and no more. Here is what Israel isn't permitted to do, for now: Israel is forbidden from threatening to attack Iranian nuclear facilities (our leaders have, in an exceptional move, become silent on the issue). Also forbidden are deterrence displays against Hamas and Hezbollah that go beyond the norm. The White House has enough problems without having to pull satellite photos of Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza.

The priorities of the Obama administration are completely different. Besides its long delayed, critical, decision on the war in Afghanistan, the president is also plagued with internal U.S. issues and the erosion of his popularity among the American public. After that, in a high place on the priority list, stands the issue of Iran. Israel's job, right now, is not to interfere. We are apparently headed toward several more weeks of dialogue, and after that, if talks fail, a U.S. move to impose more sanctions on Iran. Only in 2010 will there be an actual assessment of what effect these sanctions will have, and whether it is possible to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb without resorting to military tactics.

A man who was, up until recently, involved in Israel's decision making process and continues to serve as adviser to many at the helm, said this week that in his opinion, the Israeli leadership should be very careful in formulating an opinion on the dialogue with Iran. He says that the idea of transferring enriched uranium from Iran to Russia is not necessarily a bad idea, and a similar idea was raised five years ago. It was then director of Israel's atomic energy committee Gideon Frank who came up with the idea, and presented it to then prime minister Ariel Sharon. The key, the man says, is in the supervision clauses of the deal. If Iran, in a surprise move, accepts a deal similar to the one it rejected last week, there is definitely room for dialogue.

The IDF must prepare itself for the possibility of an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities because that's the IDF's job. But when the debate among experts and analysts regarding such a scenario revolved around operative questions (will the Americans provide Israel with an airspace corridor over Iran? How many fuel jets will be required? Etc.) it is missing the point. The important question is how willing the U.S. is to protect Israel in the event of a counter attack. The message Israel is getting from Obama's administration at this time is that it is out of the question - and thus the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran diminishes drastically.

But how will an Israel-Iran war look if it breaks out eventually? This question is at the center of a new study compiled by the Defense Ministry. Researcher Dr. Moshe Vered writes that such a war could go on for a long time. He believes that the Iranian's typical willingness to sacrifice many victims for a long period of time in a conflict with Israel will dictate a prolonged war between the two states, which will be difficult to end.

Dr. Vered, a physicist, occupies various roles in the defense establishment's technology division. He published his study this week as part of a sabbatical at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. He argues that the length of an Israel-Iran war "will be measured in year, not in weeks or days." This stems from the Shiite perception by which one must fight and sacrifice for the sake of justice and to correct wrongs to Islam and to Muslims. "This outlook sees Israel's existence as a wrong that must be corrected for the sake of world redemption. The achievement of this goal will only be possible once Israel is annihilated. The Iranians will continue fighting this war, as much as it is up to them, until they achieve their objective, despite the heavy toll that will be exacted in battle," Vered writes.

Vered argues further that only the fear the Iranian regime being toppled could bring such a war to an end. But, it seems unlikely that Israel will be able to pose a real threat to the Iranian regime, and "in the absence of a way out, acceptable to both sides, the war could continue for a very long time."

Vered mentions the fact that the Iran-Iraq war, in the 1980s, lasted eight years. Iran fought many years to achieve its demands - to correct the basic wrong of Iraq's invasion into its territory, Iraqi recognition of its culpability, and the removal of the head of the Iraqi regime Saddam Hussein.

Iran paid an inconceivable price in that war - half a million dead and economic damage higher than the country's entire oil income in the 20th century - before it agreed to a ceasefire. The ceasefire came only when there was a real danger that the Iranian regime would not survive.

Vered writes that "one can't rule out with a high degree of certainty the possibility that a war will break out between Israel and Iran." Therefore, a careful assessment of the details of a possible war, and preparation for it, are essential. In his study, he fails to find anyone who could develop an effective method to shorten the time of a war.

He goes on to write that the fear of such a war should prompt Israel to prepare mentally, politically, and militarily, while creating ways to end it quickly, should it erupt. The assumption that the war will become prolonged should affect the way Israel prepares for it, as well it should affect the decision whether or not to attack Iranian facilities in the future.

Vered rejects the assumption that in the absence of a shared border, the Israel-Iran war will be fought only with surface to surface missiles. Such warfare shouldn't last a long time because Iran's supply of long-range missiles isn't large. However, he writes, it is more plausible to assume that Iran will want to continue the fighting against Israel via messengers: Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, and maybe even an Iranian force on Syrian soil, as part of a defense treaty between Tehran and Damascus. He plays down the likelihood of a short confrontation (Israeli assault followed by a punishing counter assault and then an immediate ceasefire under international pressure while both sides realize that the war has played out), he thinks that the ideology of the Iranian regime will dictate a prolonged war. Yes, this isn't exactly what you would call relaxing reading material for the weekend.



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