An interesting perspective from a Pakistan security analyst

The News, April 27, 2006
US-Iran, Israel, India and Pakistan
Ikram Sehgal

On June 7, 1981, Israeli F-15s and F-16s took off from Etzion airbase near Eilat at 4:00 pm; at 5:35 pm, in an action lasting less than 80 seconds, the nuclear reactor at Osirik being built with French assistance was left in ruins. Osirik would have given Saddam Hussain an Iraqi bomb in less than 10 years. After the Osirik raid, nations, (among them India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, South Africa, etc.) developing nuclear weapons through clandestine means dispersed their nuclear facilities and buried them deep in secret locations, making it all that much harder for an Osirik-type 'solution'.

On the other hand the development of stealth aircraft, cruise missiles, precision-guided bombs, remotely-piloted aerial vehicles, extremely accurate GIS maps, etc. gives a potential attacker numerous options, many of them already field-tested in battle in the last 15 years. During the Iraq war the US used covert means, viz (1) it was extremely successfully in buying off the loyalties of key Iraqi generals so that organised resistance collapsed in the face of the US Blitzkrieg and (2) not so successfully in activating domestic Iraqi resistance (e.g. Washington-based Chalabi) to cause Saddam Hussain any real damage.

Despite relentless diplomatic efforts to head off a possible war, it is only a question of 'when'. The US has learnt many lessons from going it alone in Iraq, particularly in not letting diplomatic action to run its full course. Israel has never been inhibited by any such qualms and/or restrictions. Osirik compromised and endangered Israeli security, they had to take it out and they did. Facing strong condemnation from all over the world, Israel had no regrets, equating most of it as hypocrisy by EU countries since many were privately grateful.

The US-led condemnation of Iran has manifold objectives, among them, viz (1) creating international pressure on Iran to scale down its nuclear programme or maybe even abandoning it "without bloodying swords", to quote Sun Tse Tzu (2) creating a favourable world coalition supporting possible military action against Iran if necessary and (3) to head off imminent possible Israeli action against Iran, and if it does happen and the US is forced to be a participant in the fait accompli as a necessary bitter pill, to soften world approbation.

Despite the sabre-rattling, US military action against Iran is not a done thing if the decision was Washington's alone. Overstretched in (and because of) Iraq the US Armed Forces could suffer grievously both in Iraq and Iran. The preferred attack mode will be an air assault, a combination of B-2 Stealth Bombers, F-117 Stealth Fighters, B-52s, Tomahawk cruise missiles, etc, any mode that can deliver joint direct action munitions (J-DAMs) taking out multiple targets in deep concrete bunkers.

A CIA unit already seems to be operating in Sistan and Balochistan stirring up Iranian Baloch tribes. Does this strike a chord about the incentive and support keeping Akbar Bugti in the hills? The Iraqi-based Mujhahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) operating against Iran with Saddam Hussain's help had been disarmed; the Pentagon is believed to be seeking MEK's re-activation. Even though liberals may not be enamoured by President Ahmedinejad or his government, Iranians are very nationalistic, on the nuclear issue they are united and charged, the regime change option will not materialise. The Iranian regime has put the threatened US invasion to good use, uniting Iranians on one pro-nuclear platform.

With an increasing number of Americans wanting US troops out of Iraq, can the Republican president risk another war, given that both Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be proverbial 'black holes'? Condemnation of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's conduct of the Iraq war by six retired generals, some recently serving as divisional commanders in Iraq, was extremely damaging for the Bush Administration. The political risk will exponentially be higher with elections for the US Senate and House of Representatives due this November. Unlike common perception the US will not rush into war. There are confirmed reports about diplomatic back-channel talks, an aide to Iran's nuclear chief was believed to be in Washington talking to US officials.

The 'Holocaust' exercises strong influence over the Israeli psyche, 'never again' is an Israeli article of faith. When an Iranian aircraft lightly damaged the Osirik reactor in 1980 during the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqis stated that the proposed bomb was not meant for Iran or Muslims but for Israelis. Enough for Israel to trigger plans for the Osirik raid! Recently Iran's President Ahmedinejad has said Israel will be wiped out from the face of the Earth, for Israel that amounts to "casus belli".

Contrary to world perception the US does not exercise inordinate influence over Israeli decision-making, at best there is close consultation on many issues. John Locke's (1734-1802) "Second Treatise" seems to be the Israeli inspiration (and now also of Bush's National Security Strategy) of pre-emptive action. Locke's tenets state, to quote, "there cannot exist a doubt, that, if that formidable potentate certainly entertains designs of oppression and conquest, the other states have a right to anticipate him", unquote, or in other words, to act before "it is too late, and the evil is past care".

In December 2005, just before he went into coma, Sharon authorised an action plan for Iran to be ready by end of March 2006, activating two units, Unit 262 of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDFs) the equivalent of US Special Forces and 69 Squadron consisting of F-15s, the main weapon platform for the 1981 Osirik raid. The question is not whether Israel will act or not, it is whether Israel will act alone and when, the 29 TOR anti-missile systems worth US$700 million on order from Russia will expedite the decision. Able only to deploy aircraft as delivery weapons, Israel lacks the capability of carrying out a comprehensive surgical strike over nearly two-dozen Iranian nuclear sites.

The US may be forced into the conflict despite its own reservations and political compulsions. Commando (and even bombing) raids by Israel could virtually be suicide missions but a nation that has grown up with a Masada-psyche should know a thing or two about why a "suicide bomber" becomes one. One stray incongruous coincidence requires mention here, Col Ilan Ramon of the Israeli Air Force took part in the June 7, 1981 Osirik raid as a young F-16 pilot, he died aboard the "Columbia" space shuttle on February 1, 2003, the debris spreading over, of all the places, the town of Palestine in Texas.

Sceptics may consider it ludicrous, there is an outside danger Pakistan may even become a simultaneous target. Reputed analyst Eric Margolis says that Pakistan is definitely on the US agenda after Iran. Could Israeli (or US) planners afford the risk of leaving a Muslim nuclear state with the means of missile delivery intact if there is war with Iran? The tragedy would be they have no grouse with Pakistan, can they take this calculated risk in the face of a possible Pakistani nuclear reaction because of military action on a fellow Muslim nation and neighbour in line with the 1837 "Caroline formula", to "necessity of self-defence is instant, overwhelming and leaves no choice of means and no moment of deliberation"?

Given the deliberate ambiguity of Indian PM Manmohan Singh's pointed statement to a Muslim delegation, "India cannot afford another nuclear state in its neighbourhood", should one not be apprehensive that India as the "newly US-appointed policeman of the region", takes the opportunity for a "final solution" vis-à-vis Pakistan butting into effect "Cold Start"? Our US ally has pointedly (and quite brusquely) excluded us from the nuclear club, after all we are not as "responsible" as India. Without going to panic stations, one must take deterrent measures to deter any temptation to line up Pakistan in cross-sights as a target of opportunity to be dealt with sooner rather than later. Hoping (and praying) otherwise, we need to take prudent precautions.

The writer is a defence and political analyst Email: isehgal@pathfinder9.com

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