Small Wars Journal

The Saudi Option

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The Saudi Option

by Tristan Abbey and Scott Palter

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The year is 2012. Squadrons of F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s streak across the sky,

swamping air defenses and neutralizing other key Iranian installations. The next

wave targets the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom, the nuclear power

station at Bushehr, the conversion plant in Isfahan, and the heavy water plant at

Arak. Within hours the Iranian nuclear program is crippled. As the armada returns

to base, the head of state who ordered the attack readies to congratulate the pilots

who carried it out.

 "Peace be upon you all," King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz says to his men.

"Your bravery humbles me. The Saudi Kingdom will be forever grateful.


*          *

Since the Bush administration forced the issue of Iran's nuclear program to the

fore in 2002, debating the merits and perils of a preemptive airstrike has become

something of a favorite pastime. Amid all the chatter about narrow corridors and

Saudi "green lights" lies an inescapable truth: a surprise Israeli strike has never

been more unlikely.

The contours of the problem have remained largely unchanged over the years. The

United States risks too much by attacking Iran, while an Israeli strike is difficult

to achieve without American backing. None of the countries that could conceivably

grant Israel over-flight rights—Turkey, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia—relishes the thought

of being seen as complicit in a Zionist-Crusader foray against yet another Muslim

country. Logistical requirements, namely limited refueling capacity, restrict the

Israeli Air Force's options to but a single multi-squadron assault of questionable

long-term effectiveness. Tel Aviv, essentially, has one bullet.

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Tristan Abbey is in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. Scott Palter, a professional wargame designer and publisher, is President of Final Sword Productions, LLC. Both are senior editors at

Bellum: A Project of The Stanford Review.

About the Author(s)


So the attack would be a disaster, but a nuclear Iran even worse? A disaster for who, and worse for who? A disaster for every economy whose prospects fall with each rise in the cost of imported petroleum, for sure.

As we tut-tut at the high risks in a war to deny Iran nuclear sovereignty, it's hard not to engage in outlining a Tom Clancy novel where it is attempted. I suggest jumping past that movie to the sequel, where it's been attempted, and we have to live with the fall-out, literally.

There's never ever been an attack on nuclear storage and production facilities, excepting the small-scale sabotage of 'german' heavy water in WW2. We do know that any strike threats, planning or attempt on any nuclear sites would be regarded by the US and our allies as WMD terrorism. Any that is, except the Iranian ones?

The sort of attack being irresponsibly gamed at Stanford and elsewhere is nothing like the destruction of unfinished containment buildings in Iraq or Syria by Israel. Y'all are talking about breaching containment on centrifuges and storage, releasing highly radioactive and chemically toxic U-hexafloride gas. Pressurized feed stock. In output effect, it would be a radiological attack, on a Chernobyl scale, by design.

It would be state sponsored WMD terrorism against the peoples of Persia. We would be seen as the sponsor, whether Israelis or Arabs flew the F-15s or fired stand-off missiles. Persian water, food and people would be radiologically and chemically poisoned for generations, and that's no greenie bullshit.

You're not talking about compromising structures. If the attack were 'successful', thousands of machines must be unsalvagable, dispersal of the U-gas would be broad. Consider that a few hundred parts per million is considered a rich U-ore bed these days, so you'd have to scatter it over Sq. miles, not acres. Any solid U-metal or yellowcake would be compact and well protected, would not be destroyed.

The countries that are seen as mounting this brave new kind of warfare, Israel and Arabia, are themselves proliferators. Israel could be sanctioned for NPT non-compliance by the US, if we followed our own counter-proliferation laws. Arabia has purchased and deployed Chinese IRBMs that only make sense as potential nuclear delivery weapons. Arabia and China were partners in enabling the Pakistani nukes and proliferation that we fear may fall into terrorist hands. Oil-hungry China is positioning itself as a friend to Iranian petro-mullahs, and Arabia will at least anticipate a windfall oil price in the aftermath.

On the day after this epic attack, Iran is radiologically poisoned and another generation unified behind the next ayatollahs. Arabia and Israel, the richest, strongest, and most likely nuclear countries in the region are still not secure, nor are we. Counties will still see a need for their own A-weapons, and oil may never be cheap again.

So ooo-rah, let's get busy and figure out a creative way to make it happen? You guys could spend better time gaming the aftermath, the effect on Iranian civilians, on our economy and our legitimacy. Because the attack won't be clean, the downside will be long, and the fun part will be over in a day.


Tue, 08/03/2010 - 8:11pm

Thank you for taking time to respond Tristan, I didn't expect that - always expect the unexpected, eh?

I will be the first to admit, an air strike on Iran by the IAF would be pushing airframe capabilities to the absolute, with no room for error, and still only gets them a limited strike option and result.

However, let's not forget about those Israeli recruits that in the past few years are the second cream of the crop after those selected as pilots. . .submariners. Israel has developed a submarine force that could easily evade the ASW capabilities of its Arab neighbors, to include its Persian antagonist, Iran.

These submarines would most likely be armed with Jericho 2, and shortly (if not now) the Jericho 3 ICBM, and contribute to a pre-emptive strike on Iran.

As for your last question as to where A CH-53 would refuel? They got it over to Romania didn't they? Who says they didn't fly it with aerial refueling in route? : )


Tue, 08/03/2010 - 7:33pm


Thanks for reading! The Romanian theory is interesting but I still don't see how this gets around the logistical nightmare. If Cordesman's analysis is correct -- that the Israelis have just one bullet -- I'm afraid I don't see how the CH-53's get over there in one piece. Where do they refuel?


Tue, 08/03/2010 - 7:29pm


We actually conclude that both options -- Israeli and Saudi -- are unlikely. Our point is that an Israeli strike is so unlikely that an Arab strike is likelier. We also are quite clear in the piece that the flotilla would not be an invasion force.

Mark Pyruz

Tue, 08/03/2010 - 6:41pm

This is really a far fetched scenario.

First of all, nowhere does it mention the fact that these Arab countries possess significant Shia minorities (some may even be misrepresented and could actually be slight majorities). The potential of these Shia minorities turning to insurrection over an Iran strike trumps any concerns over Iran's nuclear power program.

Second, the flotilla idea necessitates soldiers, sailors and amphibious craft. There is simply no way a collection of Arab "peace activists" is going to be assembled to pull off an invasion. And such an invasion by military force would provide the initiation of hostilities, not the defense of the islands.

Third, any strike by the air forces of the Gulf Coast is going to directly involve US military forces, from ground crews on up. These air forces are heavily dependent on US and foreign assistance, even for just day-to-day operations. The demand for direct US assistance in such a strike would be high, and these forces' performance questionable. Taking this into account, it makes a lot more sense to put in the "A team", than it does to put in the "D team".

Fourth, looking back on history, the much more powerful country of Iraq was successfully goaded into attacking a much weaker Iran, as it was in 1980. And that represented an Arab disaster that's had negative repercussions for them to this present day. It is extremely doubtful they'd be foolish enough to give it another try, in what would no doubt become another long and tortured struggle for the region.


Tue, 08/03/2010 - 6:00pm

I wouldn't count Israel out just yet. In late July a Yasour Ch-53 chopper crashed in the Romanian Carpathians. The incident seemed to indicate that the IAF is practicing long distance flights not only by fast movers, but also heavy helicopters, such as the Yasour (in flight refuelable). I doubt it is by accident that these practice missions have been taking place in terrain similar to Iran, and in cooperation with Romania, whose distance from Israel of 1,600 kilometers approximates that of Iran. This indicates Israel is still working on its options, and may use the Yasour armed with special missles to fire into tunnel entrances

As for the Saudi Kingdom? No doubt the House of Saud is looking across the Persian Gulf at what may be a nuclear-armed Iran very soon. Since the word on the street is the Kingdom is unsure of the direction of American foreign policy in the region, isn't happy with Obama's soft approach toward Iran, and probably thinks they may need something to counter. But not an attack (they're also not entirely up to it).

The Saudis have recently stated that they are going construct the King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energies in Riyadh. The purpose of the center is to conduct research into nuclear and alternative energy sources.

What better way for the Saudis to counter Iran? After all, nuclear energy research and development is how Iran's program got started.

As for Israel, my opening paragraph is open to interpretation. . .