Jeffrey LewisMullen's Message for Israel

Avner Cohen asks an interesting question about a speech in Tel Aviv by Tony Cordesman.

Cordesman told audiences that Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman ot the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was delivering a message when he said that Israel did not have a green light to attack Iran:

Cordesman is visiting Israel this week, and gave a lecture yesterday at Tel Aviv University and at Hebrew University on Sunday. He talked about Mullen’s comments last week in Washington when the Admiral said such an Israeli attack would be dangerous and could destabilize the Middle East. Mullen spoke after returning from a visit to Israel, during which he met with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and other senior IDF officers.

Cordesman said Mullen came to Israel to deliver a message – that Israel did not have a green light to attack Iran and that it would not receive U.S. support for such a move.

According to Cordesman, Mullen was expressing the official opinion of the U.S. administration, including that of President George W. Bush and the National Security Council.

Avner asked me to put the question to my readers:

I have the gut feeling that Tony is right about Mullen’s mission, and surely there is much more going on than meets the eye.

This means that notwithstanding the Syrian thing, Israel is not allowed to act in Iran. At least not now. But why Mullen was asked to convey the message to the IDF? Is this something that was left opaque in the “frank” and “extensive” talk between Olmert and Bush? Is this an actual warning?

Your thoughts. Any of your blog’s readers maybe has a comment.


  1. Bill

    Seriously? Why could Bush, who admits he idolized Sharon, not deliver the message to the heir of Sharon on the subject taking unilateral preventive action in the name of national security (i.e. the “Bush Doctrine”)? It is absolutely inconceivable that Bush could personally deliver such a message in a clear and forthright manner. All Olmert has to do is ask coyly, “So nations no longer have the right to act in their own defense?”

    Mullen, whatever his failing, can at least deliver a clear message. If you want to believe Robert Kaplan (, that message might be coming from Robert Gates as much as its coming from George Bush.

    I don’t know if Cordesman is right, and that Mullen has delivered a clear message that no attack is allowed, but I am certain that Bush could never deliver such a message personally without turning against his central beliefs absolutely.

  2. Haninah (History)

    Just a stab in the dark, but assuming all the premises are correct (Mullen did deliver that message, directly to the IDF, instead of/on top of any message delivered by Bush to Olmert) could this be another bullet point to add to your “Lame Duck-itude” post?

    Perhaps the significance of having the US military convey this message to the Israeli military is to emphasize that the US position has been adopted on the basis of professional military considerations, and that it will not be affected by impending or potentially impending changes in the political leadership of either country?

    (Another way to put it is – the US military has little respect for Olmert’s leadership, and the Israeli military presumably has little respect for Bush’s, so the JCS decided to cut out the middlemen and talk directly with their counterparts. Not a great development in terms of the appearance of civilian control, but given the caliber of the civilians involved maybe not the worst possible outcome.)

  3. ataune (History)

    There is no attack in the offing against Iran, not now and not in any forseable future. It is absolutely against US interests as a first rate power to mix itself in a war with a second rate power, particularly after Iraq and Afghanistan fiasco. Israel might want to drag US in a border skirmich with Iran, or put pressure on the US and Europeans or to scare the Russian and Chineese and / or to intimidate and deter Iran by brandishing the military menace, but it will not and cannot act withouth US permission. If there is any signification in the highly publicized travel of Mullen to Israel is to emphasize the political message he is delivering to the military brass in Israel that now is not the time for warmongering gesticulation. As a proof, Israeli and neo-conservative sites are much more low profile now than 2 weeks ago.

  4. Andy Grotto (History)

    The premise that Israel wouldn’t “act” against Iran unless it first received a permission slip from the United States is wrong — that’s simply not how the relationship works.

    To the extent that Mullen delivered a message to the Israelis, it was most likely something to the effect that the United States would not support an Israeli air campaign that involved flying through Iraq to get to Iran. A statement such as this wouldn’t surprise me in the least because an Israeli incursion into Iraqi airspace to attack Iran would almost certainly result in the Iraqi government kicking U.S. forces out of Iraq and further radicalize Iraq’s polity; it could even result in the ouster of Maliki by more radical elements.

    That said, I have no doubt that if the Israelis felt their supreme national security interests demanded that they needed to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, they would have no qualms about flying over Iraq, with or without the coalition’s permission.

  5. FSB

    Anyone know offhand whether IDF has enough airborne tankers to take out multiple Iranian facilities without US refueling help?

    According to wikipedia they have 7 KC-135s, which depending on distances and fighter planes needed per target could perhaps not be enough refueling capacity(?)

  6. Yossi

    My guess is that Israel refused to attack Iran in spite of a united western front persuasions and now the US is pretending she wanted this.

    Nuclear Iran is not an existential threat to Israel, it has a submarine fleet with a massive second strike capability and Iran is very rational, pragmatic and flexible. Israel can play the Sunny savior for years to come and reap the benefits. On the other hand Iran, who must raise oil prices otherwise its regime collapses, will destroy western economies when it becomes the leader of OPEC.

    It’s a western interest to break Iran but the situation is complicated by Natanz being fortified against a GBU-28 attack. The US can’t afford to use nukes again, UK and France wouldn’t do it, only Israel may politically survive it using the equation Ahmadinigad=Hitler. Western leaders paraded one after the other to Jerusalem to persuade it to attack and promised political backing. Barak and Nethanyahu are stupid and would have swallowed the bait but Olmert is a fox and he learned a lesson in Lebanon.

    This analysis may be wrong but it’s consistent and what is even more important not boring.

  7. Gridlock (History)

    “an Israeli incursion into Iraqi airspace to attack Iran would almost certainly result in the Iraqi government kicking U.S. forces out of Iraq and further radicalize Iraq’s polity; it could even result in the ouster of Maliki by more radical elements.”

    Althought the latter option is perhaps plausible, the very notion of the Iraqi government “kicking US forces out” is absurd and laughable when even suggesting that there be may be some end date on the occupation is turned into a “transcription error” by Iraq’s imperial master.

    You do know that the status of forces agreement demanded by the US not only gave them immunity from all Iraqi law and upwards of 50 sovereign US bases but control of all airspace under 29,000ft too?

    As for the Israelis flying through Iraqi airspace without coalition permission, this would be suicide (politically and literally) if there wasn’t a “stand down” order given to the numerous Patriot etc batteries throughout the country.

  8. Mark Konrad (History)

    Actually, the notion that Israel would or could “go it alone” is false.

    An Israeli air-attack mission to Iran would require intruding in foreign airspace and in-flight refueling on either the inbound or return flight, possibly both. That would almost certainly occur over Iraq (as opposed to Jordan, Turkey or Syria). The Israelis would technically require permission from the Americans (Iraqis) to fly and refuel over Iraqi territory.

    An overt Israeli air attack on Iran involving flight and refueling over Iraq would be viewed by the Iranians, quite justifiably, as Iraqi and American participation in an unprovoked attack on Iran.

    There is some question regarding the level of IRGC and Iranian government-sponsored operations inside Iraq now. The most logical strategic response by the Iranians to an hypothetical attack as described above would be to significantly intensify their destabilisation efforts inside Iraq. That means the United States would be responsible for dealing with a newly volatile situation inside Iraq that has been created by the Israelis.

    It’s doubtful that the Americans would be eager to allow the Israelis to put them (the Americans) in that position. The violence in Iraq has decreased and the American Establishment media have reduced their negative reporting and commentary regarding the war.

    It’s second page news now. The American occupation PR campaign has also been relatively successful at home (“The surge is working.”).

    It’s likely that the U.S. government and military entities will stridently discourage dramatic military action that would threaten to dash the fragile, marginally acceptable status quo they have finally managed to acheive.

  9. Andy (History)

    I doubt ADM Mullen is telling Israel anything it doesn’t already know.

    However, one theory to answer the question “why Mullen” might be related to explaining the negative effects a unilateral Israeli strike would have on US military forces in the region and to reiterate the danger to Israel of attempting a strike without US acquiescence.


    The US presence in Iraq and up and down the gulf is a huge problem for Israeli strike planners that supersedes the political problem of Iraqi airspace you identify. That presence necessitates at least minimal coordination with the US to ensure that Israeli aircraft are not shot down by the US and that is what gives the US leverage – probably enough leverage to equal a “permission slip.”

    Avoiding US-controlled airspace raises the risks for Israel substantially and the risk of a direct-route operation is already high. While Israel says it cannot have even the potential of a nuclear Iran there is one thing that is worse for Israel (and the US) – to attempt a strike and fail. Israel has relied on the aura of conventional military supremacy since 1973. That supremacy was seriously tarnished in the 2006 war – a failed strike would destroy it and, IMO, Israel will live with the potential of a nuclear Iran rather than risk the consequences of such a failure, even without the very negative consequences for its ally, the US. I think Israel understands this which explains why they are quietly developing a second-strike capability in their submarine fleet to bolster their deterrence.

  10. ataune (History)

    Come on Andy,

    Their “second strike” capability they bought it from germany 10-15 years ago. And Germany wouldn’t have sold it without the NATO commander approval.

  11. Andy Grotto

    FSB —

    The Israelis could pull it off without tanker support from the United States.

    Andy —

    That’s the point — the operation would cause the United States enormous problems in the region. But if push came to shove and the Israelis crossed into Iraqi airspace, a U.S. decision to not shoot down an Israeli warplane or affirmatively disrupt the mission in progress through alternative means is hardly a “permission slip.”

    Your point about the fading aura of Israel’s conventional military supremacy is off the mark in this context — the conflict in 2006 was an unconventional war that Israel mistakenly thought it could win with its superior airpower. What we’re talking about here, however, is a conventional mission involving the use of airpower to take out fixed targets. That’s not to say that the mission would easy — far from it; it would be very risky, as you point out. But I would bet that the Israelis could pull it off. And if the goal is to delay Iran’s program (that’s really the only feasible goal), Israel would have wide latitude for claiming success if it took out Natanz or Esfahan.

    Would an Israeli strike be a good way to deal with Iran’s nuclear program? Definitely not, in my view.

  12. vas-sav (History)

    Of course I don’t have an answer. But reading all the very perceptive comments here a question crossed my mind. Was Israel’s exercise of June indeed a message aimed at Iran or at the US officials demonstrating that a potential preventive israeli strike is doable?

  13. Andy (History)


    The current Israeli “Dolphin” subs have limited endurance and range unless running on the surface – a significant problem for a second-strike platform utilizing relatively short-range missiles. The new crop of submarines ordered two years ago will go a long way toward mitigating those deficiencies and give Israel a much more survivable second-strike option.


    I’m not as confident as you they could pull it off with the tanker support they have, especially since those tankers would need to operate over Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or some other country depending on their route. The required tanking support is highly dependent upon the target set, number of aircraft and the route taken. Israel’s lack of aerial refueling is a significant limiting factor for attack planning against Iran.

    This is perplexing:

    But if push came to shove and the Israelis crossed into Iraqi airspace, a U.S. decision to not shoot down an Israeli warplane or affirmatively disrupt the mission in progress through alternative means is hardly a “permission slip.”

    You seem to suggest that Israel might launch and go through Iraq and bet that the US would simply not interfere. The biggest problem with that scenario is what happens when the Israeli aircraft are coming back across the border from Iran into Iraq. Without precoordinated IFF codes for the aircraft the US will not be able to tell the Israeli’s from their Iranian pursuers. I seriously doubt the highly skilled and trained IAF pilots are going to willingly gamble their lives on the US ability to sort them out from the Iranians amidst the fog of war when the US was not even forewarned. Those codes are the bare minimum “permission slip” the Israelis must have if they are going to operate over Iraq or the Gulf.

  14. Stephen (History)

    Unless the Admiral is trying to provide a plausible deniability? ie post-attack the Whitehouse press secretary can say, “We weren’t involved – see we even told them not to do it”

  15. Stephen (History)

    If I were on IDF planning staff, I think I’d launch the raid but not bother about flying home. Instead, unannounced, I’d land my aircraft in Iraq.

    There’s no way the US would hand over IDF personnel or equipment to the Iraq government, so the US would have no choice but to repatriate the Israelis and their equipment.

    The net result is that the logistics of a raid get easier (no return leg to plan), Israel gets to destroy some nuclear infrastructure; the US is forced to overtly and publicly help Israel with a military aspect of the raid; and, the Whitehouse is forced to provide active political support retrospecively justifying and sanctioning the raid.

  16. Cliff (History)

    Im reminded of a chapter from “1967” by Tom Segev in which Winston Churchill’s grandson visits Moshe Dayan on behalf of a British news agency, on the friday before the war. Churchill basically asks “Is this war going to start or should I just go home?” Dayan told him he could go home, and wouldn’t miss a thing.

    Dayan later said “I was sorry to mislead him, but in my heart I took comfort: if he was the loyal friend to Israel that he said, it was fitting for him to help mislead the enemy.”

    I’m not saying I really think thats what’s happening in this case, but ever since reading that I’ve been suspicious of reports that try to assure us they wont go through with this.

    As incompetent as the bush administration is, I think by now they probably realize the consequences of an attack could be far too extreme to contemplate. But on the other hand, we know they’ve done a LOT of planning for this eventuality, and the overall pattern of behavior speaks pretty clearly for itself.

    Im really not sure what to think, but perhaps they’re just waiting to see if an unusual opportunity presents itself.

  17. Mark Konrad (History)

    The fundamental point is an Israeli attack on Iran via Iraqi airspace gives Iran political justification to accuse both Iraq and the United States of being aggressor nations. Thus the Iranians can legitimately target both Iraqi and U.S. assets wherever they can manage it. Should that happen neither Iraq nor the United States can complain very convincingly about those mean ol’ Iranians shooting at them, destabilising the Iraqi government, launching attacks against American interests internationally and arming guerrilla groups inside Iraq and elsewhere. So after the Israelis have flown away to the safety of home after an hypothetical attack, the Iraqis and the Americans will receive the punishment in response.

  18. Yossi

    I think the western front doesn’t need or want to completely disable the Iranian nuclear program, it’s difficult and unnecessary. This is politics and the aim is just to stop Iran from becoming dominant in the Arab world, especially the Gulf area. Iran is not a real threat to Europe or the US.

    Natanz is the pride and symbol of Iran’s technological power. To break Iran’s rising influence the West needs only destroy Natanz and maybe one other target (Esfahan?). If Israel is willing to play along it could do it, the most logical way to attack Natanz is with a cruise missile launched from a submarine in the Gulf. The Israeli air force may need only to strike Esfahan and get back safely.

    The big problem is not military but political. Using a nuclear weapon and not as a last resort and in clear self defense will have a severe political cost. In addition it’s a declaration of war against Islamic pride and may ignite an endless religious war. We are drifting back to a multi-polar world and a nuclear first strike must be considered in this context.

    Israel will pay a high price also for refusing to nuke Natanz. Soon the US will have to lift the sanctions so Iran can raise oil production and lower prices. The US and Iran will strike a grand bargain and become allies. Cheap fuel will win against conservatism in the coming elections.

    The Iranians had won when they fortified Natanz against the GBU-28, now it’s impossible to stop them by force. The only way left is to create a counterweight nuclear axis and this is possible by building an enrichment facility in the Sinai peninsula that will be shared by Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

  19. ataune (History)

    Lets put it this way : Israel cannot act outside the limits that US has setup in the Middle-East. This doesn’t mean that it cannot try to influence these boundaries. But in the case of attacking Iran, US will not flinch and this will not happen without US permission.

  20. J House

    If US-Israeli covert ops fail to significantly delay the production of bomb fuel, Israel will take unilateral action.However, an attack is at least a year away at present. Israel will give the new admin a chance to deal with Iran, but once the red lines are crossed, Andy is right…no permission slip will be needed.
    This will be supreme challenge to Israel’s air force, escpecially without US re-fueling support.

  21. Andy Grotto (History)

    Andy —

    Yes, that’s what I’m suggesting. You’re correct on technical grounds, but I think you’re overstating the risk that the United States would mistakenly shoot Israeli planes down. If Israel did launch an air campaign— big, big if — my guess is that they would present it as a fait accompli. That’s totally different from “coordination” or needing a “permission slip.” I’m not saying this mission is easy — as I indicated before, far from it — but merely that it is within Israel’s technical capability to pull it off if it so decided.

    The more fundamental obstacle is politics: the massive political problems that an Israeli strike would pose for Israel’s relationship with the United States are so large and easily anticipated (see my initial comment) compared to the limited value of delaying Iran’s program that the chances of Israel launching a strike, in my view, are slim. But not negligible…

    The tanker question has come up here a few times. There are no confirmed numbers available that I am aware of, but most expert sources I am familiar with put the figure around five KC-707s and five KC-130Hs. Note that the KC-130Hs can’t refuel F15 and F16s — which are the strike assets Israel would use — so it would have to rely on its KC-707s in a strike against Iran.

    For readers interested in the technical side of an Israeli strike, I recommend this study by a pair of MIT doctoral candidates

  22. Ak Malten (History)

    Dear Friends,

    no offense, but I sens some naivety in the discussion here.

    1. Why do you think this would be a Non-Nuclear Raid ?
    Or do you expect that conventional bombs could do the trick ?

    2. Even if you would use conventional bombs, what would be the net result of such a bombardment ? Or do you think because you do not want it to happen, that it will not happen and there will be no contamination as net result ?

    3. What will be the possible Iranian answer to the raid is also not brought into the equation. Why not ?

    4. Even if Israel with the help of the US would be able to destroy, say 75% of the Nuclear Industry of Iran, then do you think Iran will sit on its hands or develop Nuclear Weapon in the shortest time possible ? And then what ?

    At this moment my friends this raid and planning for this raid is illegal according to International Law. It is unprovoked by and based upon assumptions of a Nuclear Weapon program in Iran !

    Ak Malten

  23. Yale Simkin (History)

    Here is a a technical analysis of potential attack scenarios, primarily using the extreme long-range F16I w/KC707 refueling – titled Osiraq Redux

    Note the conformable fuel tanks along the body over the wings and the belly tank:

  24. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    If true, this is an awfully convoluted way to convey messages.

    Let me review the bidding, just to make sure I’ve got it straight.

    President Bush meets with Prime Minister Olmert.

    After a visit to Israel, in which he met with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and other senior IDF officers, Admiral Mike Mullen said an Israeli attack would be dangerous and could destabilize the Middle East.

    Anthony Cordesman, while in Israel, says that Mullen was expressing the official opinion of the U.S. administration, including that of President George W. Bush and the National Security Council.

    Let me say that my gut feeling is the same as Avner Cohen’s. Mullen’s statement seemed quite remarkable.

    Since I’m better at questions than at answers, let me pose a few.

    Was Cordesman’s comment a surmise on his part, or is he part of the message machine?

    Did Bush deliver the message and then feel that emphasis by Mullen was needed?

    Has something changed (in Iran, Israel or somewhere else) since Bush visited Israel?

    Why did Mullen and Cordesman (if Cordesman is part of the message machine) go public? Is it to make double-sure that Israel and the rest of the world get the message? [I have suspected for some time that Sy Hersh’s articles have had a damping effect on the rhetoric and intentions of the administration]

    Is this the way George Bush believes diplomacy is done, or is he too shy to say it himself? In short, does the circuitous route say more about George Bush than about Israel?

  25. Yossi

    The MIT study was published two years ago and in the meantime Iran bought and deployed 29 Tor-M1 systems. The Tor is a technological marvel and can intercept anything except ballistic missiles so attacking Natanz with a nuclear cruise missile is also a bad idea.

    Flying to the end of operational range with a 2.5t bomb to attack a target defended by a few Tor-M1 (and MIGs) is a bit suicidal. Getting there and trying to aim the bombs into the craters of previous ones is even worse. We hear that the Iranians added more dirt/concrete layers in Natanz so it’s not clear what damage can be done and of course they can always build replacement centrifuges.

    Innovative diplomacy is a better alternative but it requires getting rid of the old army generals and those who think like them. I apologize for repeating myself but the best solution is an Israeli/Arab enrichment plant in Sinai. This will make Natanz irrelevant and isolate Iran inside the Islamic world.

  26. Cliff

    Ak Malten –

    Its true that small tactical nukes might be ideal for inflicting serious damage to Natanz, however as others have pointed out the political cost would be severe. For that reason I don’t think the nuclear option will be considered viable. However, the flipside to this is the demonstration effect: it could send a message to other potential adversaries that the United States is not afraid to employ nukes, even against a non-nuclear foe and irrespective of the political cost.

    Personally I dont think this will happen. I hope not anyway.

    What is more likely is a major aerial campaign that will take out a wide variety of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, ostensibly for that purpose, but in reality it will be focused more on toppling the regime. Iran has stated publicly that any attempt on its facilities will be considered an initiation of war. So I somewhat doubt we would commit to something like this without being prepared to take it all the way.

    I think a major attack on Iran has probably been the plan of the Bush administration since around 2003, with Iraq presumably ready to be used as an air base, together with our carriers, etc. But I think by now the reality of the current circumstances including US economic conditions, insane oil prices, domestic politics and other factors might have caused them to think twice. At least, I hope so. If we DO go through with this, I think there is an increasing chance it will happen between November and January.

  27. ataune (History)

    Yossi – There is no way that Israel will share its vital know-how with any arab or muslim country. This is simply political suicide for them.

    Cliff – Looks like you forget one essential fact: a weakened or fragmented or divided state on the iranian plateau is not in the interests of the US. Specially now, when the southern flank states are somehow feeling the color of the money from the North and being pushed back toward the influence of the Russian bear.

  28. Yossi

    ataune, Israel is said to have studied and to use enrichment but I doubt it has an advanced large scale centrifuge technology. In a shared enrichment plant she will be another student not a teacher. It’s true that sharing will be very difficult for the many local xenophobes but the benefits are very large, maybe make the difference between survival and eventual destruction.

  29. XYZ

    There is a significant difference between not giving Israel a “green light” to attack Iran and giving them an actual “red light.” Admiral Mullen probably simply reiterated the reality of the current U.S. military posture which is that we are stretched thin and are not in a position to open a third front against Iran at this moment. I would not be surprised if the Admiral carried with him new inducements, either promises of additional military aid or promises to take action in the future, in order to change Israel’s perceived security calculations as to the benefits of launching a strike against Iran at this time. Indeed, it is quite possible the current round of Israeli saber rattling is an effort to “shake down” the U.S. for additional military support and security guarantees. From the outside it is simply impossible to tell whether Israeli leaders truly see Iran as an existential threat (implying that they believe their nuclear deterrent is irrelevant) or are simply hyping the threat for internal or external political purposes. That being said it is highly unlikely that Admiral Mullen directly told the Israelis not to attack Iran. He is a seasoned diplomat and well knows that a U.S. red light is simply not credible and that the U.S. will neither take positive actions to prevent an Israeli strike nor punish Israel should do so. The U.S. knows this and so do the Israelis. It is unimaginable that the U.S. would prevent Israel from crossing through airspace it controls (what could we do, shoot down Israeli aircraft or warn the Iranians?) or that we will stand idly by when Iran responds by strikes against Israeli or U.S. targets. Can any one name an important U.S. political leader who will seek to punish Israel for starting a war with Iran if Iranian missiles are striking Tel Aviv or being fired a USN ships in the Gulf? What we can be sure of is that should an Israeli attack result in an Iranian military response the U.S. press, pundits, populace, political establishment, and military leadership will support Israel to the hilt. Secretary Rice’s speech today promising to defend Israel reinforces this point. Admiral Mullen could plead with the Israelis not to attack, but he could not coerce them into doing so. Finally, whatever message of restrain was conveyed by Admiral Mullen is undoubtedly being undercut through separate channels by hardliners within the Administration who are much closer to the President than either Secretary Gates or Admiral Mullen.

  30. ataune (History)

    XYZ – Obviousely, any political player anywhere and at anytime can act irrationally. That is one of the essential carcteristic of the free will. But here, we are trying to do rational analysis, and based on that we can say with a high degree of confidence that Israel will not and cannot tresspass the US redlines in the region, exactly like Egypt and Jordan let say. If it does, it has acted irrationally. Nobody will cry fool publicly in the US, and the political establishement might display even warm support as you say, but long term relations will suffer enormousely and proportionally with that the basis of legitimacy for Israel will shrink more and more.

  31. Yossi

    Let’s assume the US and Israel decided that Israel will attack Natanz. the best course now is to pretend Israel is doing it against the US will. This will minimize retaliation against the close and vulnerable US targets and the chance of unwanted escalation. The Mullen message could be part of a conspirational deal and not a real red light.

  32. Andy (History)


    Sorry for not replying sooner.

    I don’t think I’m overstating the risk at all. Consider OIF where Iraq didn’t launch a single aircraft to attack coalition forces, yet US air defense still shot down two coalition aircraft and almost shot down a third. In a highly dynamic situation where both Iranian and Israel aircraft are headed toward the Iraqi border or US ships in the Gulf, the opportunity to shoot down Israeli aircraft is very great without electronic identification because there simply won’t be time to positively identify the aircraft visually before a decision on whether to engage or not must be made. The foundation of US ROE is the inherent right to self defense and any unidentified aircraft coming out of Iranian airspace that appears threatening will likely be engaged IMO. Examination of the fratricide incidents in OIF showed the Patriot operators believed they were acting in self-defense against unknown aircraft that appeared to constitute a threat, even though they had received no indications that Iraqi aircraft had even launched. The fog of war in these situations and the requirement to make decisions quickly drives commanders to be safe rather than sorry.

    Israel understands this and in my judgment that is a military risk they will not take. They will have to plan for what they would do if the US tries to shoot them down – will they just eat the missile? Fire back? Such considerations add immense problems to a mission that is already very complex, difficult and dangerous. The military problems with the fait accompli scenario only begin there. Another major problem is that it would probably give Iran warning of an impending attack. When the US sees Israeli aircraft coming in from Syria unannounced, US forces will react in a variety of ways, many of which Iran would detect. This is assuming the US allowed the raid to proceed, which is debatable (in reality, US Commanders would likely stop the incursion and request guidance from Washington which would take time – time that burns limited Israeli jet fuel and time that will increase Iran’s chances of detecting the impending attack). Additionally, knowing that Israel was mounting a surprise raid, the US would move rapidly to protect its own forces from the inevitable Iranian reaction which Iran would likely notice. A fait accompli mission would therefore seriously risk the element of tactical surprise which is essential in this kind of operation.

    If Israel decides to attempt to attack Iran, it will have one chance. I think it’s highly unlikely Israel will gamble that one chance by surprising the US by flying through Iraqi airspace or over the Gulf.

    Let’s look at it another way. There are two general types of risk when considering this type of raid: Military risk and political risk. I think we are in violent agreement about the political risks, though I’m not as convinced Israel would launch a raid without warning the US as it would put US forces at risk (Consider the political repercussions for Israeli-US relations if a US ship gets sunk by Iran because Israel didn’t warn it’s ally about the impending raid). Overall, I think the Israelis will accept a higher level of political risk than military risk. The reason for this lies in the risk of failure. While Israel would likely bear the political cost of a successful raid, it is doubtful they would willingly bear the costs of a failed raid. IOW the political risk is only acceptable if the mission is successful. Therefore assessing the military risk of a raid is of great – in my mind primary – importance in judging whether or not Israel will conduct a raid on US nuclear facilities. Because of the US’s position, the US can significantly affect the level of military risk for Israel. The US can greatly reduce the risk through assistance or it can greatly increase it by non-cooperation, of which IFF codes are only one method.

    So in my judgment, the US can raise the level of military risk for Israel so that failure becomes likely. I think that is exactly what the US is doing and that is the message ADM Mullen delivered – that Israel will fail without the US assistance and that the US is not going to provide such assistance. I think this is born out by the public hoopla over Israeli strike preparations and all the leaks about those preparations. I think it’s questionable that Israel would project its apparent intentions so blatantly if it had the capability to conduct the strike – instead we would hear nothing and wake up the next morning to learn the strike had already occurred. IOW telling your opponent that you’re going to conduct a surprise attack along with a general idea of how and what will be attacked is counterproductive to successfully conducting such a strike. It is also counter to almost all such raids in history, and particularly for Israel.

    In my judgment Israel determined a few years ago it did not have a good chance of success without the US and has been lobbying America ever since to either do the mission itself or help Israel do it. So all the hoopla over Israeli preparations are more about psychological warfare than real warfare. In my judgment, if Israel had the capability to conduct this operation successfully, it would have done so already.

    I have read the MIT analysis and a few others (Here, and here.). They are ok for the most part, but I think they make too many assumptions about the target set.


    While the Tor-M1 is a capable system, it is only one part of an effective air defense and by itself does not make Iranian defenses significantly better. To use an analogy, putting racing tires on my Volvo does not turn it into a race car.

  33. Yossi


    The Tor-M1 is only part of a bargain with Russia, there are also advance radars which can detect low flying planes and probably more. The Tor has a short range and height limitation but within its envelope it can intercept not only planes but laser guided armament and air to surface missiles, so it can stop an attack even at a very late stage.

    Iran is too big a bite for Israel (and the US). Fortunately there is no real reason to attack it. I think US fundamentalists went berserk and try to persuade Israel to attack Iran and when they fail cry to the US for help. This will give them the much needed excuse to “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Joint Chief of Staff is forcing GWB to swallow some multicolored pills and if he doesn’t he should.

    The US was the only superpower for 20 years and its main achievement is a widespread longing for the old bi-polar world where the much saner Kremlin leaders had a calming and stabilizing effect. Americans play too much video games and this makes them treat human lives as surplus electrons.

  34. M Lemon (History)


    Old bi polar world is very nice when the players both want to avoid destruction. The problem is that Iranian brand of Islamic theology seeks some kind of apocalypse for themselves and us.

  35. Yossi

    I apologize for the strong language above. Sorry.

    The USIC said that Iran is not a nuclear weapons addict and this seems reasonable. In my very humble opinion the anti-nuclear fatwa of Khamenai supports this view and don’t underestimate a fatwa of the Supreme Leader. Not using CW against the Iraqis may be another indication (or not).

    However, constant military threats will inevitably lead any country to develop nukes because of their magical deterrence value. The Iranians play now with enrichment mainly for ego reasons, US policy will make them seek nuclear weapons in earnest.

  36. Josh Narins (History)

    I know this conversation is mostly over, and I’m not here to reply to any of the interesting comments above.

    I do have one question, though.

    At what point will Iraqi military units, or have they already, begun taking responsibility for Iraqi air defense? Certainly they had many SAM sites before the war, and although it is possible they have all been destroyed without any being rebuilt, it is unlikely. It is also unlikely that U.S. personnel are manning these stations.

    Also, I don’t believe Cordesman speaks for the administration. He might be right, but that’s a different story.