Four Things Netanyahu Needs for an Israeli Strike on Iran

Obama's timetable won't permit an attack on Iran this year, so Netanyahu has a lot of groundwork to prepare.

To give the green light for a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requires evidence of a clear and present danger; the assurance of the Israel Defense Forces that it can do the job; domestic support; and also the consent of President Obama, who learned from his predecessors in the Bush family that you should only go to war in the Persian Gulf three years into your presidential term, after congressional elections. Tehran is in the crosshairs, but not before 2011.

Four-star General Kevin Chilton was in Israel last week. He is head of the U.S. Strategic Command, whose sphere of operations includes responsibility for missiles on submarines and in underground silos, as well as bombers and satellites, and computer-network warfare. If American forces were to take part in an offensive campaign against Iran, Chilton would play a significant part in preparing them for battle and in long-distance missile launches, although responsibility for the theater itself would be retained by Gen. David Petraeus, of Central Command.

Chilton, who as a teenager was a surfer in Southern California, deserves to be called Kevin Spacey - he is a veteran of both NASA and the Air Force space command, wearing the wings of an astronaut who peered down at Earth during three space voyages. He well understands the anxiety in Israel. His hosts brought him, as usual, to Yad Vashem. But in his conversation with Israel Air Force commander Ido Nehushtan and Deputy Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Chilton didn't offer even a hint of readiness to engage in any operational coordination against their mutual rival. On the contrary: He wondered if it might somehow be possible to persuade Iran to abandon its effort to develop nuclear arms, in order to stave off an aggressive confrontation.

Chilton may have been joking when he said that each senior command echelon in the United States has an even more senior command echelon above it - with the only exception being Mrs. Barack Obama - but when it comes to vital matters of foreign affairs and defense, one should never misinterpret: The general expressed Obama's desire to delay the inevitable.

Iran is definitely in Obama's sights. He has ceased courting it, and is girding for the confrontation. But not yet. Evidently, it will not be this year. Thus, if Netanyahu wants to attack Iran, he's going to have to take into account four major indices: substantive need, operational capability, internal support and external consent. Only the confluence of extremely high scores in all four of these areas would allow him to spearhead the decision to launch an operation.

As far as substantive need goes, as of last month, Iran did not yet have nuclear arms. Public pronouncements by senior U.S. intelligence and Pentagon officials more or less corroborate the assessments in Israel: The Iranians possess 1.8 tons of low-grade enriched uranium. Quantitatively, this is more than what is needed for a single bomb, providing the material undergoes additional enrichment to the higher grade required for producing arms. American intelligence agencies estimate that Tehran has not yet made the decision to produce more of the material, after which it would be expected to accelerate progress on a wide front, so as to be able to reach "initial operational capacity" - meaning, between four and six nuclear-tipped missiles positioned in different hiding places, to make it harder for all of them to be destroyed at once in a surprise attack.

Another prerequisite for an Israeli attack, which has prevailed for years, is the state of hostility between Israel and Iran on the terror front, but it is not sufficient by itself to justify a strike. Iran has attacked Israel relentlessly through its proxies in Hezbollah, Hamas and other organizations, via financing, training and direct supervision by the Revolutionary Guard and the foreign terrorist attack division of Iranian intelligence. Israel does not make do with indulgent acceptance of the Iranian attacks. If the Mossad indeed assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh of Hamas in Dubai, the motive most probably had less to do with the past than with the present - namely, with his recent role as a Hamas liaison with Iran, rather than as revenge for the murder of soldiers Ilan Saadon and Avi Sasportas two decades ago.

As for capability: Prior to making a decision on the question of launching an operation against Iran, Netanyahu would need an unequivocal statement from the defense establishment that Israel possesses the military ability to hit targets and accomplish the objectives that will be set, at least in relative terms (i.e., wreaking damage that could be reversed in a few years, as opposed to total destruction from which there could be no recovery).

The four chief advisors to the political echelon in this matter are expected to be Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, his deputy Gantz, Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin and air force commander Nehushtan. It would not be surprising if the opinions are also sought of half a dozen retired senior commanders, who in recent years have constituted a sort of control group consulted prior to critical decisions.

It is possible that a number of officers who have been involved in the Iran issue in recent years would also be asked for opinions, including former deputy chief of staff Dan Harel, Brig.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who until recently headed the General Staff's Operations Division, and the air force's Brig.-Gen. Nimrod Sheffer, who was commander of an F-16 squadron and head of the General Staff's Planning Division.

It is reasonable to assume that at any given moment, the officers could say that the operation is feasible, but that only a certain measure of success would be attained. Or that success could be maximal, but that preparations have not yet been completed to contend with the escalation liable to occur on other fronts, including Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and perhaps the West Bank.

No unity among officers

At any given moment, one can reasonably conclude that there is no unity of opinion among the officers who would be consulted, either when it comes to assessments and or recommendations. Among Gen. Nehushtan's predecessors, Eliezer Shkedi was more belligerent on the Iranian question than Dan Halutz. Seasoned defense officials are aware that special operations, such as the assassination of Mabhouh (if it was indeed carried out by Israel), do not necessarily reflect an army's or nation's capability in war. The attacker always has a momentary and fleeting advantage that does not reflect his capacity to defend and absorb. The Israel that carried out assassinations of Black September operatives in Europe in 1973, for example, was not adequately prepared for the Yom Kippur War.

As for the subject of domestic support, Netanyahu is bleeding, said one of his political rivals this week, no matter what the polls may say. The capitulation of a majority of the cabinet and of the Knesset is preventing an all-out crash, but is not sufficient for him to be able to soar. There is no reverence for the premier. Without an ample measure of political prowess, security leadership and moral authority, you do not take a country into an initiated war, a war of choice.

In terms of external consent, Gens. Chilton and Petraeus and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who met Ashkenazi in Brussels last week, have an influence on Obama, but primarily are attentive to his policy, which is mainly concerned this year with stabilizing the economy, disconnecting from Iraq, fighting more effectively in Afghanistan, and easing tension with China and Russia - partly for the purpose of tightening the ring around Iran. The American military sees Iran and North Korea as "regional aggressors" that threaten to spur a nuclear race and to undermine stability at two edges of Asia. The conflict with one of the two, with preference for Iran, is growing closer, but is still possible to prevent.

The spokesman of the Obama administration's National Security Council, Mike Hammer, last month described the transition from dialogue with Tehran to sanctions against it as the "pressure track." Last year was the year of public relations; 2010 is the year of pressure. The crushing blow that comes after the pressure will not be dealt before next year.

Petraeus, in speaking about Iraq and Afghanistan, recently referred to the difference between "Washington time" and "Baghdad, or Kabul, time": Iranian nuclearization is conducted according to Tehran time, but Obama takes a look at the Washington clock and sees in it the congressional elections in November.

During the waiting period, until 2011 arrives, Israel can intensify its intelligence capability, spruce up its military power, and it would also be wise to place at its head a political leadership that can be relied upon.