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Showdown: Israel vs. Iran

Can the U.S. handle another major conflict in the Middle East? Currently U.S. officials fear that Israel is planning a multi-faceted attack on Iranian nuclear capabilities that could spark a massive retaliation from Tehran, NBC News reports. A conflict between the two nations could become a regional conflict that would force the U.S. to intervene to defend Israel and our interests.

The potential Israeli attack would utilize warplanes, missiles and special forces to strike Iranian nuclear installations. The Israelis may even use “massive explosives-laden drones” to carry out attacks, according to NBC News.

Officials and experts are uncertain of exactly how Iran would respond, but it would likely include retaliatory missile strikes. Iran has more missiles in its arsenal than Israel does and could strike targets in Israeli population centers. Iranian Shabob 3 missiles may not be as accurate as Israeli missiles, but Christopher J. Ferrero, a professor of diplomacy at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and an expert on Middle East missile forces notes, a missile attack would be an effective “instrument of terror … that could certainly cause significant damage to heavily populated suburban and urban areas.”

Despite the threat of retaliation, Israeli intelligence doubts the seriousness of an Iranian retaliation. Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio in November, “A war is no picnic. … There will not be 100,000 dead or 10,000 dead or 1,000 dead. The state of Israel will not be destroyed.”

In fact, some scholarly studies have argued in favor of the Israeli government’s position. A recently-published paper by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, written by a pair of former Israeli military intelligence officials, contends that Iran would not be able to close the Strait of Hormuz for any length of time and that it’s not in Iran’s interest to do so. Sealing the strait would likely force the U.S. to engage, which the study assumes Iran wants to avoid.

Another study by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies says, “The threat to Israel of missile warfare is somewhat exaggerated” and that “missile attacks would be able to inflict only limited physical damage on Israel.”

Israel has as many as 100 Jericho missiles, both short and medium range. The medium-range missiles have a range of 900 miles, meaning they could hit Tehran. Jerichos can also be quipped with high explosives and nuclear warheads, but U.S. officials believe that an Israeli attack would be a surgical strike and not be intended to inflict massive casualties.

Iran also has no way to defend itself against a missile attack, and also may not have enough missile launchers to launch the overwhelming number of missiles required to break Israel’s missile defenses.

Barak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also argue that using sanctions alone would not convince the Iranians to stop their nuclear program and consider a military option vital to stopping the program.

“I don’t think we are very close to a situation in which the Iranian leaders will look each other in the eye and say: ‘There is no choice. We have to stop the nuclear program,’” said Barak on the radio recently.

Experts warns that even though Israel has an advanced missile defense system, they could still be overwhelmed by Iranian missiles.

“I believe that (the Iranians) have a sufficient inventory that they could overwhelm those missile defenses and still get enough missiles through to cause damage,” Ferrero said.

In fact, most analysts say that an Iranian counter-attack would use its network of allies like Hezbollah and Hamas to coordinate assaults. Many experts also agree that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities will only temporarily stop Iran’s nuclear program. Critics contend that even though the Iranian government is unpopular, the nuclear program has widespread support and an Israeli effort to stop the program will only serve as a rallying cry behind for the Iranian regime.

Iran’s key nuclear facilities are protected by heavy fortifications, and U.S. officials believe a two-pronged attack would be used to take them out. First, Israeli strike fighters would breach the heavily fortified outer shell of the facilities. A second wave of missiles would be used to take out the inner facilities.

When asked about the accuracy of Jericho missiles a U.S. official commented, “You would be surprised at their accuracy,” further remarking that warheads would contain a special mix of explosives to penetrate the Iranian defenses.

U.S. officials also say that Israel may have found the locations of the facilities that fabricate centrifuge components, which means Israel would strike these too.

Despite Israel’s technological advantages, there is doubt over whether or not the Israeli attack can even be carried out. Michael V. Hayden, former CIA director, said airstrikes capable of setting back Iran’s nuclear program were “beyond the capacity” of Israel because of the distance attack planes would have to travel and the scale of the task.

Yet, a top defense official acknowledged that “we don’t have perfect visibility” into Israel’s capabilities and military calculations. Echoing these views, Anthony H. Cordesman, an influential military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said, “There are a lot of unknowns, there are a lot of potential risks, but Israel may know that those risks aren’t that serious.”

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