Alexander Wilner at the Center for Strategic & Intelligence Studies (CSIS) has put together a very thorough analysis of the military balance of power between Iran on the one side and the US and Israel on the other (pdf here). As Iran appears close to full development of nuclear weapon capability, the pressure on Israel to respond to what it sees as a truly existential threat is growing. Israeli leaders cannot sit by and do nothing; their history and their strategic position demands action. However, while Israel certainly has the theoretical capability to hit Iran, the reality of the situation is that they will have to traverse potentially hostile skies all the way to Iran and back. Also, although they have the ability to hit Iran, it is an open question whether they have the ability to deliver a devastating blow without resorting to their own nuclear arsenal (I tend to think not).
Wilner assesses Israel’s capability to conduct both a conventional and a nuclear strike on Iran. In either case, the likely outcomes are suboptimal both from a pure military as well as a global opinion point of view.
If a military strike is to be made, it has to be the US that conducts it. Wilner lays out the array of choices before US policymakers. There are six basic options:
- Demonstrative, coercive or deterrent strikes – a very small number of cruise missile strikes to demonstrate US seriousness and possible willingness to escalate should Iran comply with demands
- Limited US attacks – dozens of cruise missile and attack aircraft strikes designed to destroy are critically damage 2 or 3 major nuclear and/or missile facilities
- Major attacks on missile and nuclear targets – hundreds of strikes over a number of days designed to destroy or critically damage a wide array of nuclear and/or missile facilities
- Major attacks on military and civilian targets – 1000 to 2500 strikes to destroy nuclear/missile facilities, “technological bases” such as universities, and critical military and asymmetric warfare functions.
- Delay and then strike – lay the foundation for any of the above options, but wait for further evidence and/or allied support
- Ride out Iranian proliferation – a number of defensive/deterrent options, such as publicly announcing the nuclear targeting of Iranian sites, encouraging Israel to also make such a declaration, aiding Saudi Arabia in the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent, building anti missile capability in GCC nations, etc.
Wilner goes over each option in much more detail. I believe that the Obama administration will take military action against Iran in the coming months, and I strongly recommend this report to anyone who wants to understand the problems and potentials that will inform that decision.