MARK COLVIN: As the drumbeat about possible war against Iran continues a former head of the Israeli spy agency, Mossad, says that if his country attacked Iran, it would still not stop the Islamic Republic from being able to make a nuclear weapon.
And Meir Dagan told the American program 60 Minutes that an Israeli strike on Iran would bring a revenge attack which would have a ‘devastating impact’ on the country. He said an attack would start a regional war.
Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. He’s the author of ‘Iran: The Looming Crisis’, and most recently ‘Pasdaran’, a book about Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard. He’s been studying the possibilities of an Israeli strike.
I asked him first, if Israel were to bomb Iranian nuclear sites, how they would get there.
EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI: There is a northern route; they will go either over Turkey and Iraq or Syria and Iraq. There is a southern route; they will probably go along the Iraqi-Saudi border which is longer.
MARK COLVIN: Form WikiLeaks we know that Saudi Arabia is very strongly opposed to Iran getting a nuclear weapon, might they turn a blind eye?
EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI: They might, although of course all of the countries in the Gulf, when they look at Iran and the possibility of an Israeli strike, would very much fear a retaliation if they were to open their airspace to an Israeli passage. They would need to have a high enough degree of plausible deniability to do that.
I think that, from the Israeli point of view though, a northern route would make Israel’s planes gain a certain number of air miles. Which are critical because this would be a strike that would be conducted at the outer limits of Israel’s air force. It would require refuelling in the air for all the air planes involved. So if you gain 50 or 100 miles that would make a significant difference in operational terms.
MARK COLVIN: I’ll ask you in a minute about the consequences of a successful Israeli strike. But first of all, it doesn’t seem to be much discussed, what if the Israelis struck and something went badly wrong and it was a failed strike?
EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI: I think the consequences would be very, very severe, because you would still have a nuclear program ongoing. A strike that failed to dent the nuclear infrastructure would have adverse political consequences, certainly for Israel.
But I think the worst consequence of it all is that Iran would be in a position, would have a pretext, to justify withdrawing from the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) because it would say, ‘we have been negotiating; we have been trying to solve this issue amicably; we have been attacked, we have no choice but to remove the inspectors and go deeper underground.’ So certainly the consequences of a failed strike would be significant.
I think the Israelis will take that action only if they feel that their back is completely against the wall, that Iran is about to cross the finish line its road to a nuclear weapon, and no-one else is willing to do it.
MARK COLVIN: There are a lot of nightmarish scenarios here. Is it even possible that one of them is an Israeli nuclear first strike on Iran?
EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI: No, Israel will not use nuclear weapons in a first strike scenario.
MARK COLVIN: How certain are you of that?
EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI: I am very certain of that. Israel may use missiles to target Iran. And I think that those who assume that an Israeli action against Iran would rely entirely on its air force are sorely mistaken. Israel has other means to integrate an air strike against Iranian facilities.
But using nuclear weapons on a first strike against such a target would be an act that is unprecedented. And quite aside from the question of operational success, would have a political price that Israel cannot afford to pay.
MARK COLVIN: If there was a successful attack, by the same token, would there be something like a dirty bomb going off? Would there be radioactive fallout in Iran if Israel succeeded?
EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI: If the strike is carried out before some of these facilities are fully operational, no.
MARK COLVIN: So if Israel were to conduct a successful strike, what are the potential consequences, what’s the worst-case scenario?
EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI: The day after the strike the Islamic republic is still standing. The regime is intact, its internal support is actually given a boost by an attack. And the regime feels strong enough that it can go on the attack and retaliate against Israel by taking a number of steps that would include, most likely, unleashing Hezbollah on the northern border with Israel from Lebanon, and perhaps Hamas from the Gaza Strip. So what…
MARK COLVIN: Because even though Hamas is a Sunni organisation it has strong connections with…
EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI: Strong ties with…
BOTH: Shiah Iran…
EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI: …which go back to the early 1990s.
MARK COLVIN: So a successful Israeli attack creates a pincer movement from south and north against Israel.
EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI: Correct.
MARK COLVIN: What about in the Gulf? Is there a possibility that Iran will try and, as it’s threatened to, close the Straits of Hormuz? Would it possibly attack Gulf state’s oil installations? What kind of things might it do?
EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI: Iran can do all of the above. They can try and close the Strait, they can attack oil installations along the Arabian shore of the Gulf, and other critical installations and strategic targets of Gulf states. It could attack American targets in that area too. I mean there is a very significant military and non-military presence by the US in the region.
I think that if they did that, certainly with the Straits, but also with the abovementioned targets, they would draw the United States into conflict with Iran. And that would be a terrible mistake on their part.
So it’s not something to be ruled out, because ideologically that would be a strong temptation from the Iranian part. But it could spell the end of the regime if the Americans were drawn into this conflict.
MARK COLVIN: Emanuele Ottolenghi, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.