Ausgabe 25/2008

'Mission Doable' Israeli Ministers Mull Plans for Military Strike against Iran

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Part 2: 'We Will See a Middle East in Flames'

While the Europeans continue to pin their hopes on diplomacy and are convinced that a negotiated solution that would allow Tehran to save face is still possible, the Israelis already view the UN sanctions regime as a failure. Russia and China, they say, sabotaged the boycott from the very beginning, and even the Europeans have only half-heartedly supported sanctions.

According to the Israelis, companies from Austria and Switzerland have recently signed agreements for the delivery of natural gas with Tehran, and even the German government has only slightly limited trade with the mullah-run regime. "The Iranians don't even feel the sanctions," says Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. According to Hanegbi, the international community will have to unite if it hopes to achieve anything -- "and soon."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been reticent on the issue. During a visit to the ranch of US President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas last November, Merkel promised to "take another look at economic contacts between German companies and Iran" and push for additional restrictions.

But there was little left of that resolve when Bush met with Merkel last Wednesday at Schloss Meseberg, the German government guesthouse outside Berlin. Her only comment about another round of UN sanctions was that she would "not rule them out." As one of her fellow Christian Democrats admits pessimistically, "Merkel is no longer pursuing this issue with any great enthusiasm."

Politicians in Berlin have noted with concern signs of the next war brewing in the Middle East. Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who travels regularly to Jerusalem and Washington for political talks, warns that Israel could see the Bush presidency as its last chance to gain American support for a military strike. "Politically speaking, the window for action is now, in the last months of George W. Bush's term in office," Fischer wrote recently. "The Middle East is headed for another major confrontation."

Others share this sense of unease. Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, a foreign policy expert and member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), says that he has "the unsettling feeling that the contemplation of a military option against Iran is gaining a new dynamic in Israel." He wants to see Berlin use its close relations with Jerusalem to deter it from launching a military strike.

This political offensive would not be without risk. "By issuing this warning, we are taking even more responsibility for (guaranteeing that) our favored approach will yield results," says Ruprecht Polenz, the chairman of the German Bundestag's Committee on Foreign Affairs. In other words, if Iran continues to pursue its nuclear program, the West will have to close ranks with Jerusalem. "Under no circumstances can the impression be created that Israel would be left alone with the possibility of an Iranian atom bomb," says Polenz.

Israel's main ally, the United States, is still at odds over what constitutes the right strategy on Iran. The Bush administration is divided. Vice President Dick Cheney "would still want an attack," says Flynt Leverett, a former official in the US State Department and now a Middle East expert with the New America Foundation. However he believes the secretary of state favors a different approach: "Condi Rice is buying time to get the president through his term."

Bruce Riedel, a Middle East expert who spent many years working for the CIA, says it would be "very difficult for this administration to start a war with Iran. There would be public uproar and congressional uproar." But the situation is different from Israel's perspective, says Riedel. "There is some risk that Israel thinks it has limited time to act and it has a green light from American politicians."

Besides, the Israeli Air Force is known for its "inventive solutions to military problems," says Riedel, who has strong contacts to Israel, referring to the feasibility of such an attack. "Israeli military planners tell me it is mission doable."

This is why Riedel sees an Israeli military strike, with the US government's consent, as the most likely attack scenario. But the consequences, according to Riedel, would not differ from those of an American attack. "An Israeli attack will be seen as a US attack. Iran will retaliate against both Israel and the US." The consequences, says Riedel, would be fatal. "We will see a Middle East in flames."

Nevertheless, in Israel it is no longer a matter of whether there will be a military strike, but when. It is clear that the attack would be exclusively an aerial strike. Jerusalem recently received approval from Washington for a purchase of F-22 stealth bombers. The centrifuges used to enrich uranium at the Natanz nuclear facility are apparently the main target. According to Israeli information, the centrifuges are kept above ground and are thus easier to destroy. The reactor in Bushehr is seen as another possible target.

And the Iranian air defenses? "We know that Iran's air defenses are not among the world's best," says former Mossad chief Yatom. "They can be overcome." Nevertheless, many Israelis still hope that the Americans will do the job for them. "It could still be the case," says Yatom, "that George W. Bush wants to guarantee himself a place in the history books with this last act."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


© DER SPIEGEL 25/2008
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