Has Israel received a "green light" from both the U.S. and Saudi governments to execute an air raid on Iran's nuclear complex? Those were stories that came out over the weekend, one from a television interview of Vice President Biden and the second from The Times that reported that the Saudi government had given permission to the Israeli air force to overfly Saudi Arabia en route to Iran.
Since Monday, the Obama administration has made a somewhat confusing attempt to walk back Mr. Biden's statements. As for the alleged Saudi "green light," I will say more in a moment.
Destroying the Iranian nuclear complex will require not an "air raid" but a prolonged air campaign. Those who have in mind Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq's reactor at Tuwaitha and the 2007 strike against Syria's reactor at Dayr az-Zawr do not appreciate the scope and dispersion of Iran's nuclear complex. As this report from Brookings explains (see chapters four and five), destroying Iran's nuclear complex requires attacking dozens of targets amounting to many hundreds of bomb aim points. Since many of these facilities are hardened and defended, the air campaign target list would necessarily extend to Iran's leadership, command and control, air defense, and communications systems. This would likely extend the bomb aim point list into the thousands. Israel has very few aircraft with the range necessary to reach these targets. Thus, on paper, and with conventional munitions, it would take weeks for Israel to service the target list.
It strains credulity to believe, as The Times reported, that the Saudi government has given a "green light" to this concept, at least at this juncture. Once such a campaign had begun, it is impossible to guess which direction it would swirl. Saudi decision-making is too cautious to take this risk.
Under current circumstances an Israeli air campaign against Iran does not seem realistic. For now, Israel's strategy is political, with two elements. First, it is attempting to raise global awareness of the Iranian threat. A second longer-term aspiration may be to achieve some level of coordination with the Sunni Arab states against Iran. The last thing Israel wants is to be left alone with the Iran problem.
The conventional wisdom is that an air campaign against the Iranian nuclear program would only delay the program for a few years. Most analysts assume that Iran would be able to reconstitute the program within a few years after its destruction.
In his book Fiasco, Tom Ricks discussed the surprising long-term effectiveness of the three-day 1998 Desert Fox air campaign against Iraq's WMD programs. Ricks reported that Iraqi scientists and engineers working on the program were so demoralized by the Desert Fox strikes that Iraq's WMD programs never revived. Ricks discussed Desert Fox in order to demonstrate that containment, sanctions, and an occasional air campaign precluded the need to invade and occupy Iraq.
This is not an argument for an air campaign against Iran. But those who say it is a futile idea will also need to explain why it was not futile in the case of Iraq.