Can Israel Destroy Iran’s Nuclear Program?

Scenarios For Israeli Attack on Iran

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb while discussing Iran during an address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York City. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Israel’s capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear program is one of the great "known unknowns" in the Middle East. What is clear is that the Israeli leadership genuinely sees Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, and that the clock is ticking. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Iran will achieve a "zone of immunity" once all essential uranium-enriching centrifuges are moved to underground facilities.

Likewise, we know that Israeli air force is capable of launching long-distance missions to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites (no one in their right mind would attempt to invade the 78-million strong country by land, with the honorable exception of the late Saddam Hussein).

But what we don’t know is the extent of damage Israel could inflict, and whether even the most successful operation would terminally suspend any progress Iran might want to achieve toward developing a nuclear weapon.

Iran’s Nuclear Sites

According to a leaked war plan from August 2012, Israeli action would involve a cyberattack on Iran’s communication system and a combination of missile attacks and aerial bombardment of Iran’s air defenses and key nuclear sites.

However, Iran’s nuclear program can’t be taken out with a single blow strike. There are more than dozen nuclear facilities, and Israel would probably focus on the following:

  • Arak: an overground heavy-water production plant
  • Fordow: an underground uranium-enrichment center built inside a mountain. Located next to the holy city of Qom, eastern Iran, Fordow houses up to 3000 centrifuges.
  • Natanz: another key uranium-enrichment center containing an estimated 9000 centrifuges.
  • Isfahan: an overground uranium-conversion facility.
  • Bushehr: Russian-built nuclear reactor which Israel would probably avoid targeting because it is less central to a weapons program.

Bombing Iran: The Limits of Israeli Air Power

Military experts say Israel would have to deploy some twenty-five F-15I aircraft carrying bombs that can penetrate underground targets. These would be accompanied by up to one hundred F-16I bombers used for long-range missions, along with tankers for aerial refuelling – almost a third of Israeli Air Force (IAF).

To be sure, IAF is vastly superior to Iran’s outdated air force and would probably break through Iran’s air defenses to reach its targets, assuming Russia has not covertly provided Tehran with any advanced missile systems.

Still, without the help of US superior military arsenal, Israel faces huge challenges en route:

  • Flying through hostile airspace: Long distance from Iran, coupled with Israel’s limited capacity for airborne refueling of aircraft, means Israel would have to launch a swift, hit-and-run operation. IAF would probably choose to fly through Iraq, whose aerial defenses are negligible. But although other Arab states would not break their back to help out Iran, Israel still doesn’t have the luxury of launching hundreds of bombing sorties lasting weeks.
  • Bombing underground facilities: Israel’s arsenal includes GBU-28 guided missile, which could be used to destroy the bunkers of Natanz uranium-enrichment center. Extraordinary precision would be required, because each F15-I can carry only one bomb.

    However, the Fordow facility next to Qom is a different story. Penetrating the key centrifuge chamber would require the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the GBU-57/B. The US never delivered Israel with this 5300-pound warhead, and Israel has no B-2 bombers that could carry the bomb.
Read more in the paper by Congressional Research Service.

Commando Raid

Some analysts point out an alternative route to Fordow: a covert raid by Israel’s special forces taking out the defenses at Fordow, infiltrating the facility and blowing it up before retreating. But even this operation would involve hundreds of soldiers, landing aircraft, rescue helicopters – and plenty of luck.

Impact: Delaying the Inevitable?

A complete annihilation of Iran’s nuclear program seems a tall order, given the limited time window, a multitude of targets, and the need for weaponry which Israel probably doesn’t have – and which the US government will be reluctant to supply.

Aware of this limitations, Israeli defense chiefs hope at the minimum to cause enough damage to underground sites hosting uranium-enrichment centrifuges to delay Iran’s nuclear progress for at least 2-3 years. If the US joined in the attack, the restoration period could extend to 5 or more years.

But barring other destabilizing developments inside Iran – internal unrest, severe economic downturn – there’s little reason to believe that the regime in Tehran would buckle under pressure and halt all nuclear activity. In fact, it’s very likely that any attempt by Israel to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program would only strengthen the regime’s resolve to develop a nuclear deterrent against further aggression.

Bearing in mind that Iran’s technical know-how would remain intact in any of the above scenarios, Israel might have to launch periodical attacks to terminally halt any Iranian nuclear ambition. This would naturally draw Iranian retaliation and possibly destabilize the entire region.

  • Read more on Iran's Response to an Israeli Attack
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