As the question of an Israeli attack on Iran edges from if toward when, a new question looms: What would the United States do?
The question is preoccupying not just the White House but the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns, although neither would address the matter on the record.
A number of neoconservatives in Washington, known for their closeness to the Israeli defense establishment, now predict that Israel may strike between the election in November and the inauguration of the next president on Jan. 21, if only because thatâ€™s a time when Israel can count on U.S. support.
“Israel would be unlikely to do it before the U.S. election,” said John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is close to the pro-Israel community in the capital. “But after the election and before the inauguration would be a window.”
Israeli officials will not name a date, but some have grown more pronounced in recent weeks about the increased prospect of a strike should Iran develop nuclear weapons capability.
“A year from now Iran will be very, very close to the completion of its first nuclear bomb,” Ephraim Sneh, a member of Israel’s ruling coalition, said earlier this month at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference. “I may predict that there is — will be no government in Jerusalem which would allow it to happen.”
Asked to predict what the buzz would be at the May 2009 AIPAC policy conference, Sneh said, “If we are alone we will have to act alone. This will be the subject of May â€™09.”
Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli transportation minister, said this month that an attack would be “unavoidable” if Iran had the bomb. As Mofaz also is the top Israeli negotiator in the U.S.-Israeli strategic dialogue, his remark suggested that he is confident of U.S. support for an Israeli attack.
Bolton says that is not an unreasonable conclusion with the current administration.
“From past policies, they know that Bush holds a favorable view of Israel’s right to self defense,” Bolton said of Israeli officials.
Israel’s closeness to Bush has led Bolton and fellow neoncons such as William Kristol to predict that Israel may time its strike before Inauguration Day on Jan. 21, 2009, particularly if U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the putative Democratic nominee, wins the presidency.
“The thing that makes an Israeli strike more likely is when any U.S. politician gets up and says Iran can be contained,” said Michael Rubin, a colleague of Bolton’s at the American Enterprise Institute and an alumnus of the Bush administration’s Pentagon policy unit on Iran.
Obama argues for tough diplomacy with Iran — carrots of engagement backed up by sticks of increased sanctions — and insists that such diplomacy may yet contain the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Even in the case of win by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has adopted a posture on Iran closer to that of the Bush administration, Israel is likelier to trust the backing of the Bush administration in case of a strike, Bolton said.
“You can’t predict what a new president will do with accuracy,” he said.
Any Israeli attack on Iran almost certainly would first need a green light from the United States. Airspace over eastern Turkey and Iraq, controlled by the United States and one of its closest allies, would be the likely flight path from Israel to Iran.
“You would absolutely need permission and the IFF codes,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center, referring to the electronic Identification Friend or Foe codes that combat planes need to cross international airspace.
Schanzer, whose group is allied with the Republican Jewish Coalition, is a Bush administration alumnus, having worked at the Treasury Department as an intelligence analyst.
Orde Kittrie, an Arizona State University expert on Iran and proliferation, said Israel likely would expect U.S. backup following a first strike against Iran because the Jewish state alone could not sustain the required extended attack on Iran.
“You’d have to send several waves” of air attacks, Kittrie said. “It’s not clear the Israelis have the capacity for more than one wave. The Americans do have the capacity.”
Rubin, who has researched the consequences of an attack for a bipartisan U.S. Senate panel considering its consequences, said an attack would require at least 1,400 sorties — well beyond Israel’s capacity.
“It’s not out in the open like Osirak,” the Iraqi nuclear reactor Israel destroyed in 1981, he said. “It’s all over the place. It might take more than one sortie to strike” some targets. “You’ll have to go after the military structure, take out the means for retaliation.”
Israel lost the element of surprise after the 1981 strike, Rubin said, and now Iran and other Persian Gulf states have sophisticated anti-aircraft systems.
The difficulties notwithstanding, Israel seems determined to signal to the West that it is considering a strike on Iran.
Last week, The New York Times reported that the Israeli military held an exercise this month involving more than 100 combat aircraft flying up to 900 miles — the distance between Israel and Iran. Helicopters also conducted pilot rescue exercises.
The Bush administration alumni interviewed agreed that the administration likely would back Israel in the eventuality of an attack. But they were quick to add that the administration also is cognizant of the dangers: terrorist attacks by Hezbollah terrorists, Iranâ€™s proxies, in the Middle East and beyond, as well as missile strikes by Iran.
The most threatening element is a broader conflagration involving the United States, which has some 150,000 troops in Iranâ€™s neighbor, Iraq.
“The biggest danger is that Israel will think it can start the job and leave the United States,” Rubin said.
Bolton said that available Western intelligence on Iran does not adequately predict the outcome of a strike, leaving open the danger of an enraged â€“ and still nuclear capable â€“ regime in Tehran.
“You could have a successful military strike that destroys the conversion facility at Esfahan only to find there’s another conversion facility 100 miles away,” Bolton said, referring to the process that creates weapons-grade uranium. “You could have the risks and downsides of nuclear attack without breaking the cycle.”
The White House and the campaigns would not talk about such a prospect beyond issuing generic defenses of Israel’s right to self-defense, but it is clear there are concerns.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, is touring Israel this week on a surprise visit. And senior advisers to both campaigns signed on to a report last week calling for an urgent dialogue between Israel and the United States on Iran — a dialogue that would address the prospect of military action in dealing with the Islamic Republic’s threat.
Among the participants on the panel on U.S.-Israel relations convened by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, were Tony Lake and Susan Rice, top foreign policy advisers to Obama, and James Woolsey, who advises McCain.
“Itâ€™s very significant that the key advisers to the presidential candidates signed on to a report that specifically talks about the need and importance for U.S.-Israel cooperation and partnership on the entire range of options regarding Iran,” Robert Satloff, who convened the panel, told JTA.
“It is more than just being ‘on the table.’ It takes it to another level. These are topics that merit at the appropriate time high-level engagement and discussion. It does suggest that these options are legitimate.”