With new evidence emerging that Iran now has a heavy-water factory in operation at its nuclear plant near Arak the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran this year in an attempt to thwart the nuclear capabilities of the Islamic theocracy seem stronger.
Adding to the volatile equation is the combination of the increasingly sophisticated weapons capabilities of Lebanese Shi’ite resistance group Hizbullah, a proxy of Iran and armed and supported by Iran’s other regional proxy Syria. The deteriorating security situation in Syria is likely to further fuel any forthcoming conflict, particularly after Islamists fighting with the Syrian resistance recently took control of a Syrian nuclear plant that the Israelis bombed several years ago.
Both Israel and the US view the falling of chemical weapons into the hands of Al Qaeda-linked elements involved in Syria’s insurgency as a red line. While Israel’s outgoing defence minister Ehud Barak has tried repeatedly in the past to get the Americans on board for a possible offensive attack on Iran, the Obama administration has so far stalled any preemptive attack.
The Israelis, however, haven’t given up, they’ve just temporarily shelved their plans for what they see as the inevitable if other attempts at crippling Tehran’s nuclear ambitions such as sanctions and sabotage fail.
However, while the Americans have been reining in Israel’s enthusiasm for a military attack, both countrieshave been working closely on other measures to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Barak told the Israeli media that there were more than just the two options – of full-scale war or allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons capability – in the event that sanctions and diplomacy failed.
In addition to the crippling sanctions already being applied to Iran, a more covert sabotage operation has been undertaken. Olympic Games was the name given to repeated cyber attacks aimed at undermining Tehran’s nuclear enrichment plans by interrupting the supply of uranium to Iran’s enrichment plants.
One of the targets was the deep, underground Fordo plant near Qum where Iran is producing most of its medium-enriched uranium which could be converted to bomb grade material in a matter of months.
Meanwhile, a report in the British Daily Telegraph in late February published satellite footage showing that Iran’s water factory production plant, with a column of steam rising from the plant, was in operation near Arak.
The use of heavy water in a nuclear reactor would enable Iran to produce the isotope Plutonium-239 which is the main fissile component of most nuclear bombs in existence around the world. The nuclear reactor at Arak is scheduled to become active according to the Iranian reports to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in early 2014
Additional satellite photographs show increased deployment of anti-aircraft missile batteries around the Arak installation to defend it from a possible air strike. Hitherto, Iran’s uranium enriching attempts were public knowledge and international concensus was united in limiting this first step towards a nuclear bomb. Inspectors from the IAEA have been barred from inspecting the heavy-water plant for close on two years even though they were allowed into the adjacent nuclear reactor. Nevertheless Western intelligence agencies and the IAEA were apparently aware of the probable activities at the plant.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France began negotiations with Tehran in the Kazakh city of Almaty at around the same time as the satellite evidence emerged. The deal was to ease sanctions in return for an Iranian halt to nuclear weapons production even though Iran has repeatedly claimed that development of its nuclear facilities were for peaceful means, including the operation of electricity plants, and not for war.
Despite a breakthrough Israeli premier Binyamin Netanyahu is not convinced and has urged the international community to seriously consider a military strike.
While Israel frets about Iran, a threat closer to home is Lebanese resistance organisation Hizbullah’s fiery rhetoric on Israel’s northern border. Ever since 2000 when the group succeeded in driving Israeli troops out of Israel’s self-declared “security zone” in southern Lebanon through a war of attrition, Hizbullah has been a thorn in the side of Israel.
The security situation has been exacerbated by the transference of weapons by the Syrian regime through Syria’s porous borders with Lebanon to the guerillas. The Israeli Air Force recently carried out several sorties against a convoy of weapons about to leave a Syrian intelligence base for south Lebanon.
The convoy would have supplied Hizbullah with sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles thereby reducing Israel’s advantage of aerial superiority in any future conflict with the group. The Israelis also stated that any future attempt to smuggle weapons into south Lebanon would be met with harsh retaliation.
What has Israeli intelligence and military experts worried is not only Hizbullah’s access to more sophisticated weaponry but its upgraded plans for a future conflict with the Jewish state. These include attacks on heavily populated metropolitan centres in the heart of Israel, including Tel Aviv. These plans are backed up with complementary military strategies.
A devastating strike on the Tel Aviv metropolitan area or on the city centre itself is one of the possibilities. A possible attack on key infrastructure facilities would undermine Israeli public morale and give Hizbullah the public relations victory it craves, especially in light of its fading political popularity and public questioning of its relevance in Lebanon over the last few years.
According to Israeli analysts Hizbullah believes the Israeli public is also more sensitive to massive casualties amongst its soldiers, more so than those amongst civilians, so this would further undermine Israeli public support for any war. In line with Syria’s attempt to supply the Shi’ite guerillas with anti-aircraft missiles is the plan to intercept and down Israeli aircraft which would provide Hizbullah with an umbrella to maximise a devastating attack on Israel’s home front. The ability to sink an Israeli naval vessel would be another option.
The Israelis believe that Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah’s strategy involves the following: At the onset of the next war Hizbullah will fire its heaviest and most accurate missiles and rockets (including M-600 missiles Hizbullah received from Syria, which are fitted with GPS-aided inertial navigation) on the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, as well as on infrastructure installations and perhaps on military targets.
The rockets will be fired at the fastest pace possible. This opening strike will last a few hours, maybe more, until the IAF creates room to operate in Lebanon’s airspace in a way that will allow it to hit every rocket launcher that was detected in advance or during the fighting itself. Additionally, on top of the attack on Tel Aviv, Nasrallah would then launch a blistering attack on Israel’s soldiers who would conduct a ground invasion into Lebanon to prevent the firing of short-range rockets from the south of Lebanon. Nasrallah’s plan would involve using thousands of advanced anti-tank missiles, bombs and mortars, many of which are stored in villages dotted along Lebanon’s border with Israel.
The Hizbullah leader has another ace up his sleeve – the use of “intervention forces” or special units to launch attacks on Israeli communities in the north, thereby seizing control of roads located on or near the border.
These attacks would delay Israel’s attempts to stop rocket fire from Lebanon. According to media reports many of the fighters from the special units are already in Syria undergoing training with many being killed or wounded in battle with the rebels trying to oust the Syrian regime but nevertheless gaining invaluable battle experience in the process.
So when would Hizbullah consider putting his strategy into motion? Most likely when Iran’s nuclear facilities are attacked either by Israel, or both Israel and the US. Another possibility is Tehran ordering an attack on Israel to divert international attention away from its nuclear activities. An even more likely scenario is Israel orchestrating an “incident” to justify a preemptive attack on Iran in which case the response would be devastating for all in the region. The inevitable collapse of the Syrian regime makes Hizbullah more dependent on Iran. And the ability of Jihadist elements fighting with Syrian revolutionaries to use the chemical weapons which could fall into their hands in Syria would hasten the apocalyptic scenario outlined above.
The IDF is aware of Nasrallah’s strategy and is formulating its own response strategy which involves using massive force quickly to neutralise a Hizbullah offensive.
However, there are disagreements as to whether the guerilla group can be beaten by pinpoint aerial strikes alone with many senior IDF officers insisting a ground offensive will be necessary which would prolong the ground offensive and increase the number of Israeli casualties. The Israelis are also aware that the Iron Dome missile defense system cannot provide sufficient protection from Hizbullah’s 65,000 rockets and missiles making the outcome of the next hostilities predictably bloody while the end remains unpredictable.
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