The Geneva deal and triggers for Israeli action (Part 2)

Bad deal. Triggers for Israel?

This is Part 2 of a two-part post.  Part 1 is here.

The consequences of Iran getting the bomb are significant, of course, including the urge other nations will feel to acquire the bomb for themselves, and the geopolitical use Iran will make of the bomb as both a regional threat and a deterrent against other nations, to cover Iran’s support of insurgencies and other proxy efforts abroad.  I have discussed these concerns, and others, at length elsewhere.  (Most links can be found at The Optimistic Conservative Iran Page.)

But the idea of this month’s deal as a watershed in global relations with Iran sets up a more imminent crisis point, and that is what will make Israel feel bound to take action against Iran’s nuclear program.  There are three “triggers” I see: situations which Israel must, for her own security, react to.  The deal has no features in it that will genuinely avert the development of any of them.

This, in effect, is where the rubber meets the road, as far as whether watching Iran “comply” with the deal will be a useful exercise.  The deal has the appearance of addressing two out of the three triggers.  But administering Iran’s compliance won’t be a matter of knowing for sure, on every day of the next six months, what is going on at any given facility.  Nor does the deal entail IAEA gaining access in the next six months to suspect locations like the tunnels at Natanz.  It only entails talking about increasing IAEA’s access, where such access has been denied before.

Here, a discussion of the three triggers:

1.  Iran prepares for an imminent warhead test.  I regard the probability of this as very low.  But that’s not because Iran couldn’t do it, even under the deal she has just signed.  Her activities are not constantly and pervasively monitored, even at Natanz, where she undergoes routine inspections.  We also don’t know what goes on in the underground tunnels.  (If it’s anything related to a nuclear-weapon development process, it would be uranium enrichment.  An actual warhead test would be done elsewhere.)

An underground warhead test would be detectable via seismic equipment monitored by foreign nations, and Iran – already suspicious about Israeli intelligence and intentions – will assume that the Israelis can gain knowledge of most if not all steps leading up to it.  The Iranians know that Israel is likely to detect any prior indications and try to interdict the test.  I believe that from Iran’s perspective, the timing won’t be right in the next six months to attempt this game-changing step.

But the terms of the Geneva deal won’t be decisive in preventing it.  Iran has too many ways to get around the one relevant clause in the deal: the stipulation that she dilute half of her existing stock of “medium”-enriched uranium.  She is likely to slow-roll this requirement anyway, not wanting to set a precedent of rapid compliance on any point.  But even if she didn’t, her dilution compliance will be for show, rather than having a decisive impact on her actual capabilities.

2.  Iran prepares to start up the plutonium reactor at Arak.  I consider the probability of this to be low in the next six months.  But Iran is very close to being able to do it, and I assess her main decision factor now is political rather than technical.

As with the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, struck by the IDF in 1981, and the Syrian reactor struck in 2007, the Israelis will want to attack the Arak reactor before it goes critical.  There is no way to safely and gracefully bring the reactor down once it has gone critical.  Unlike the light-water reactor at Bushehr, the Arak reactor will produce weaponizable fissile material efficiently, so it cannot be left in operation if it starts.

What Iran will want to do, as things stand today, is start the reactor up without tipping off the Israelis.  Although there will presumably be a flurry of inspection activity around the reactor at some time in the next six months, Iran could profit from holding a thorough inspection visit early on – establishing a putative baseline of “facts on the ground” – and slow-rolling further requests for access afterward.

Iran would remain in compliance with the Geneva deal as long as she was talking about further access.  Iran can thus arrange to have time to herself at Arak in the next six months, if she manages it cleverly.  The decision to do things she can’t hide later, if she does admit IAEA for further inspections, will be a judgment call.

Israel could potentially interrupt or discourage suspicious Iranian activity by notifying the UN of specific concerns, and getting the Western nations (e.g., France) to press Iran for additional visits based on those concerns.  Keeping a spotlight on Arak is probably enough to prevent the Iranians from starting the reactor up in the next year.  If it isn’t, Israel will consider this a trigger for a strike.  As long as Iran knows that, she will constrain herself to do things in ways that are inconvenient and take longer.

3.  Iran prepares to operationally deploy the S-300 air defense system, or a similar Chinese-built (or even Iranian-built) system.  Of the three triggers here, I consider this one to have the highest probability in the next six months.  That said, I think it’s more likely to happen over a period of 12-18 months from now.  The main error would lie in asserting that it couldn’t happen in the next six.

Iran's air defense threat with older, fixed and short-range SAM systems
Iran’s air defense threat with older, fixed and short-range SAM systems

There is no direct evidence that the S-300, or the Chinese HQ-9, has been delivered to Iran at this point.  I’m less confident today than I would have been 3-4 years ago that this means Iran can’t import and/or deploy the system rapidly.

Israel must be concerned with a mobile air defense capability that complicates the anti-air threat to the level of the S-300.  The maps offer a visual depiction of that.  (See another sample notional depiction at this analysis.)  Each individual intercept missile may be of older, less sophisticated technology, but the IAF can’t ignore a mobile net of overlapping range rings capable of blanketing every approach to Iranian air space.

The air defense threat with the S-300
The air defense threat with the S-300

Deployment of mobile, longer-range, modernized air defenses in Iran will change the game for the IAF, forcing it to devote significantly more of its assets to own-force protection than it would have to right now.  That will mean being able to strike fewer targets – do less overall with an attack – in the short campaign window Israel will have available (probably 1-2 days).  Of course, it will also mean an increased likelihood of combat losses, including the potential for aircrew to be captured by Iran.

The Geneva deal doesn’t address Iran’s collateral, conventional military capabilities in any way.  If Iran is technically able to deploy an updated air defense system in the next six months, the deal may even be considered a sort of cover under which she could do it, with the maximum push from other Western powers for restraint on Israel’s part.

Israel, meanwhile, will not want to strike only the new air defense system components.  She won’t want to strike only the Arak reactor, for that matter.  It is much harder to mount combat sorties against Iran than it is against Lebanon, Syria, or even Iraq or Sudan – and the blowback will be the same whether the IAF strikes one target or a dozen.  Israel won’t want to piecemeal a set of air attacks on Iran.  The need to optimize the target set – make any choice to strike meaningful enough to justify the overall geopolitical risk – will constrain the Israelis at each decision point.

Beyond the specific treatment of the “trigger” cases, readers should take away two important points.  One is that everything about the deal, including what it may lead to in the next six months or beyond, and Israel’s potential reactions, will be driven ultimately by what Iran thinks she can get away with.  If Iran doesn’t “try” very much, nothing much will happen.  If Iran does think she can get away with a lot – with secret activity, and/or activity it’s obvious Israel can’t tolerate – then the Israelis may have to decide to act.

Peace in our time.
Peace in our time.

The other point follows the first one.  What Iran thinks she can get away with will be bounded by how she perceives the will and intent of the Western nations.  This is why so many pundits are, quite correctly, comparing the current moment to Neville Chamberlain’s concessions to Hitler at Munich in 1938.  The particulars of how combat and conquest would unfold, after such an exercise in preemptive capitulation, are different today.  But the dynamic of power and perception, between status-quo nations on one hand, and radical, anti-status-quo forces on the other, is substantially the same.

Iran isn’t the only one watching.  Radical Islamists of all stripes will see in Western gullibility a unique opportunity – as all the Axis powers, and the Soviet Union, did after Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” moment.  Unfortunately, with the Geneva deal, the last vestiges of America’s post-World War II mode of leadership have fallen away.  Not through nervous inaction, this time (as with Syria), but rather through the nature of our positive actions, we have demonstrated that we are no longer the world’s singular, indispensable leader of last resort.  There is no such leader now.  America is but one among many nations that will conclude laughable deals for convenience and politics’ sake.

In the title of part 1, I referred to the Geneva deal as potentially launching “a thousand attack sorties.”  This wasn’t a reference to the likelihood that Israel will see a need to attack components of Iran’s nuclear program at some point.  The comparison is to something more like the Trojan War invoked by the poetic allusion: a war that changed the face of the known world in its time.  The mistaken complacency of 1938 makes a nearer and more politically exact analogy.  But the human pattern of such transformative wars, and the tomfoolery that leads to them, goes back to the earliest days of recorded history.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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22 thoughts on “The Geneva deal and triggers for Israeli action (Part 2)”

  1. I appreciate the long explanation – and am sorry you have confirmed my own Munich concerns.

    I pray we don’t need to learn the hard way – again – that freedom isn’t free, and that some care nothing for the concept.

    What is your opinion – if any – on a US response to Israel’s decision to strike? In Obama’s weakened political stake, can pro-Israeli interests force Obama’s hand to support airstrikes with say US missile strikes of Iran’s air defense systems as a result of Iran failing to “comply” with the terms of the Geneva deal? Clearly, if we assisted Israel, Iran would have little hope of maintaining much of her air defense and nuclear program sites. I assume Iran would attack US Naval assets (where these missile attacks would probably come from), but I imagine Iran would have to be worried that might invoke US airpower directly into Iran – which they clearly would not want – especially high altitude heavy bombers which would prove difficult for the air defense system – assuming a somewhat disrupted state of readiness at that point – to deal with. China and Russia would complain, but there would be little they could do about it.

    What is your most likely scenerio? I don’t see this as a one off Israeli attack if they decide to go, like Syria and Iraq were in the past.

    1. JEM, I’ll get back to you shortly on this question. I agree, as outlined in the piece, that Israel will only launch a comprehensive attack (as opposed to a single-target attack).

  2. By simply insisting that inspectors are present at Iranian nuclear facilities on a daily basis, Iran can easily neutralize the threat of an Israeli strike over the course of the six month window necessary to finalize her plans before embarking on the course to a comprehensive agreement.

    Iran will do nothing to instigate a strike on her nuclear facilities in this time period..

    And the Israelis, whatever their level of desperation, will not attack Iran’s nuclear facilities while international inspectors are on site and verifying that there have been no violations of the interim agreement. Imagine the furore over Israel killing scores of innocent inspectors in an unprovoked air strike.

    The Iranians have played this round very well.

    1. The human shields is certainly a valid point but please explain what you mean by “to finalize her plans before embarking on the course to a comprehensive agreement.”? What plans would Iran be finalizing?

      Once Iran has nukes, why would she need a “comprehensive agreement” and why would anyone think that she’d honor one?

      1. The following isn’t gonna be absolutely complete.

        Why fully refining her breakout capability, preparing normalization of lucrative trade, and focusing the attention on Israel’s WMDs of course.

        She is 99.8% there already.To accomplish her foreign policy objectives, it is sufficient for Iran to solely possess the capacity to produce nuclear weapons GB. She need not deploy them. Actually deployment of even one nuclear device would be totally counterproductive (at this stage), and bring the full weight of the Permanent Security Council members to bear down on her. And jeopardize the coming economic bonanza.

        Using the leverage of restraining her nuclear weapons deployment she will eventually force the international community to control and deal with other regional powers existing WMDs, and restrain future development of other potential regional WMD programs(ex.Saudi Arabia). The elimination of Syrian chemical weapons stocks is a good example. Once she negates the use of Israeli WMDs, either physically (through a nuclear free zone) or diplomatically (Western pressure), her sheer weight vis a vis her regional competitors, mainly the Saudis, Israelis, and to a lesser degree the Turks (where there’s a nascent alliance brewing in any case), will insure that her interests will be taken into account favorably. Regardless of the protestations from her aforementioned regional competitors. The reestablishment of normal trade relations with the West will be a powerful incentive towards the end as well.

        All Iran has to do now is not overdo it..

        Whether this is eventually a positive or negative regional development remains to be seen. You know I consider Sunni extremism much more dangerous for the time being. But, I have no pretensions about being infallible.

        The realignment of the regional balance of power was inevitable and should be welcomed. You cannot hold back a torrent, as a child attempts to fight the incoming waves at the sea’s edge.

        In the long course of Persian history, this is the beginning of another cycle of ascendancy.

        This is just speculation, but one tactic that might succeed. Lead Iran into succumbing to the temptation of embarking on a bulimic imperial gorge. In the process, she will weaken or annihilate the forces of Sunni fundamentalism, and as a bonus, it will culminate in her overextention.

        Overextension leads to defeat. Ask the Soviets, and judging by the past few years, you can now ask us as well.

        1. I get the feeling that you presume the Iranian leadership to be rational actors? Is that not the formative premise for your speculations? That they are not in fact, hard line religious fanatics? That they place ‘good business’ above theological imperatives? If that correct?

          1. Yes, that’s right GB. Of course, there are no guarantees that my assessment is correct.

            It also doesn’t mean I don’t realize there are powerful hardline lunatic theology based forces at work in the Iranian leadership and society. And that they won’t be utilized to further the perceived Iranian interest at any given time.

            This why I prefer that Zarif, Rouhani, and the BMW salesman half of Khameni’s persona, prevails in Iran, as opposed to the Revolutionary Guards and the Ahmadinejads.

            And on another note, A very Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

      2. PS

        There is the little matter of the upcoming (possibly) bloody Saudi royal succession. We never discuss that. It could cause quite a mess if Bandar Bush fails in his ambition to become the next Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

        It’s getting harder for the Saudis to continue their (partially) successful meddling and projection of Wahhabi fundamentalism with Iran back on the international scene now anyway. Imagine what could occur if KSA faces a full blown internal power struggle.

          1. Yes true. But the Iranians aren’t concerned about the House of Saud’s rules of succession. Their goal is to bring the House down. And Bandar Bush’s ambition might just be the wedge they need to pull it off. That’s pure speculation of course.

  3. JE,

    Regarding the S-300 as a game changer forcing Israel to devote significantly more of its assets to own-force protection than it would otherwise have to do…

    Might the Israeli’s use their subs to launch extended range (1500km) Popeye Turbo cruise missiles, launched from the Persian Gulf against the S-300 sites, with the aim to significantly reduce that threat to Israel’s aircraft just prior to an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities?

    “The Federation of American Scientists and report that the four larger torpedo tubes are capable of launching Israeli built nuclear-armed[*] Popeye Turbo cruise missiles (a variant of the Popeye standoff missile), and the US Navy recorded an Israeli submarine-launched cruise missile test in the Indian Ocean ranging 1,500 km (930 mi)”

    Google reports the driving mileage between Bushehr and Tehran to be 1077 km, so all S-300 sites would appear to be well within range of Israel’s cruise missile range.

    * I’m not suggesting that the cruise missiles would be nuclear armed, I believe that to be a political non-starter.

  4. The Iranians are stating the Obama Administration is dishonest and misleading the world about specific details of said agreement.
    Are those guys astute or what? That is what I call twisting the knife.

  5. GB — the use of sub-launched Popeyes is conceivable, of course. But they would not reliably take out the S-300 threat; i.e., to the extent that it would become a non-factor.

    Getting the sub(s) in position would also be a heroic effort. For obvious reasons, putting Israeli submarines through the Suez Canal would create too much of a furor of expectations and speculation. Israel would have to move the sub(s) covertly, around Africa. That’s not infeasible, by any means, but it is a very, very big undertaking. Without going into unnecessary detail, I will note that the more subs Israel has on hand, the more feasible it will be to maintain a ready presence, as opposed to having to deploy subs as one-offs, weeks in advance, for a contingency.

    There are other ways to try and blow up S-300s, of course. I assume Israel will try to take them out during delivery to Iran, if possible, and — assuming some batteries get to Iran — before they are operationally deployed. Use your imagination as to how that would be done.

    1. On your point about neutralizing a possible modern air defense system deployment in Iran.

      I believe any new SAM deployment in this time frame is premature. In any case, a new advanced shorter range Almaz-Antey system may be offered to the Iranians as a substitute for the S-300 family. There will be no indigenously Iranian manufactured long range SAM battery deployment in this time frame either.

      Iran is not Lebanon dear Optcon. That is becoming more apparent by the day. Israeli military options, covert or overt, are now severely restricted. So restricted, that they are at the point of being effectively neutralized vis a vis Iranian territorial targets.

      And, I neglected to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving for yesterday. So, Happy Thanksgiving weekend. My belated best wishes and apologies. Enjoy the football games.

      Your very appreciative reader (even though we don’t always agree) 🙂


      1. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours Mr. Gets.
        What would/will restrain Israeli jets heading toward hard targets in Iran? Over flying Saudi air space I might ad. Conversation? Hand wringing?Iranian threats?
        The only things that would matter: IAF training, targeting, machine and electronics maintenance/ reliability, maybe weather. Minimum defensive actions. Did I mention stealth?
        I guess the Iranian leadership could threaten The Mother of All Battles. The F-4 fighters will have an impact (as they hit the ground).
        There will be a lot of rubble left to make it easier to gather stones to throw at The Great Satan’s Friends.

        1. Same to you WR.

          The restraints are predominantly diplomatic and political, not military. And the source is the United States along with pretty much the rest of the planet.

          The Iranians aren’t stupid enough to give the Israelis (or anyone else), a pretext for a military strike by violating the terms of the interim agreement. I see this as a possibility only if there is a coup by Iranian hardliners, or the interim agreement falls apart for some other reason. Then, the Israelis won’t be the only ones preparing for strikes.

          What the Iranians want now, more than anything, is to improve the country’s economic prospects. The leadership must vent the economic pressure on the bulk of Iranian society if the regime is to survive.

          If the Israelis launch an unprovoked strike, the blowback for the Israeli economy could be severe. Here’s an extreme hypothetical example, I don’t put it passed the Europeans to impose sanctions. That alone could cost Israel close to half of GDP. There are many such disincentives to restrain an unprovoked, unjustified strike. I’m not gonna even try to estimate the damage Hizbollah might do. I don’t know for certain what missiles are in her arsenal.

          I’m almost certain these warnings have been communicated by various serious players, through many different channels, to the Israeli leadership already.

  6. I would quibble with “unprovoked strike” if I may. The metaphor of the abusive husband syndrome applicable here. The wife calls police and states her husband is pushing her around and threatening to kill her, but the husband is very careful not to leave any marks on the wife.
    The police make their usual observation you should move out lady, we can’t do anything until your husband commits a crime.
    She moves out, husband stalks her, kills her, and sure enough the police the police take swift action.
    I think the Israelis wish to avoid the “moving out portion” of this little drama.
    The Europeans don’t have any backbone and do not co-operate very effectively on any issue except spending more money than they take in.
    The Iranians need to be taken down. They may be saved, for now, by the presence of an incompetent coward in the White House. Regards.

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