The forthcoming Russian anti-aircraft system in Iran may precipitate an early Israeli strike - or promote the posture of mutually assured destruction (MAD) between Israel and Iran. Both options look bad.
In March 2009, Russia will deploy modern S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles in Iran. By June 2009, they will become fully operational, as Iranian teams finish training with Russian instructors, according to U.S. and Russian sources.
Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Senate, visited Washington last week. He said Iran is likely to produce a nuclear bomb "soon." Given the blood-curdling rhetoric of its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is feared that Iran may use it against Israel.
The deployment of the anti-aircraft shield next spring effectively limits the window in which Israel or the United States can conduct an effective aerial campaign aimed at destroying, delaying or crippling the Iranian nuclear program.
The Islamic Republic will use the long range anti-aircraft system, in addition to the point-defense TOR M-1 short-range Russian-made system, to protect its nuclear infrastructure, including suspected nuclear weapons facilities, from a potential U.S. or Israeli preventive strike.
The S-300 system, with a radius of more than 90 miles and effective altitudes of about 90,000 feet, can track up to 100 targets simultaneously. It is considered one of the best in the world and is amazingly versatile. It is capable of shooting down aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missile warheads.
Israel has been very effective in electronic warfare (EW) against Soviet- and Russian-built technologies, including anti-aircraft batteries. In 1982, Israeli Air Force F-16s smashed the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles in the Bekaa Valley and within Syria, allowing Israel full air superiority over Syria and Lebanon. Syria lost more than 80 planes, one-third of its air force, in two days, while Israel lost one obsolete A-4 Skyhawk to the ground fire.
In 1981, Israeli F-15s and F-16s flew undetected over Jordan and Saudi Arabia on their mission to destroy Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor.
More recently, the Israeli Air Force surprised the Syrians when they destroyed an alleged nuclear facility in the northeast of the country in September 2007, apparently flying undetected to and from the mission.
However, the mission over Iran, if and when decided upon, is very different than operations over neighboring Syria.
First, if Israel waits till next March, there may be a new boss at the White House, one who emphasizes diplomacy over military operations. Even if the Bush administration allows Israel the overflight of Iraqi air space and aerial refueling, a putative Barack Obama administration might not, opting for an "aggressive diplomacy" approach instead.
Second, Israel, does not have long-range bomber capacity, such as the Cold War-era U.S. B-1 heavy supersonic bomber, or the B-2 stealth bomber.
If Israel chooses a bombing campaign, it may decide to conduct several waves of air attacks, to ensure targets are destroyed. As Iranian retaliation is all but certain, it may target not only the nuclear program, but also its means of delivery, including Shahab 3 intermediate range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Israel.
Israel may also face massive retaliation from Hamas and Hezbollah, Iranian-supported terrorist organizations, although for Iran to attack U.S. targets in the Middle East would be suicidal. Many in the Middle East will publicly denounce if Israel attacks, while quietly thanking Jerusalem for doing a job that needed to be done, as they did after Osirak was destroyed.
To prevent retaliation, Israel may have to take the Iranian oil terminal at Kharg Island "hostage." Kharg Island ships 80 percent of Iran's oil. Its loss to Israeli bombing would leave Tehran with no revenue for a long time to come. If Iran launches rockets against Tel Aviv, Israel may bomb not only Tehran, but destroy Kharg Island as well.
Operational challenges abound. Israel's EW planes, needed to suppress anti-aircraft batteries, are slow and unarmed, and could become a target for Iranian anti-aircraft missiles or even fighter sorties.
Most important, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is just not up to the job. After all, his dithering performance in the 2006 mini-war against Hezbollah was lousy, and there were numerous flaws in Israel's decisionmaking, strategy, preparedness, logistics and command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I).
Moreover, the recent prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah demonstrated Mr. Olmert's lack of strategic vision, previously unprecedented for the Jewish state: exchanging live terrorists for dead bodies sent a signal that Israel is weak and can be kicked.
It was a sign the current Israeli Cabinet is strategically blind, deaf and dumb. It is not with the current leadership that Israel should go to war with the emerging regional superpower, Iran. Nevertheless, the temptation to pre-emptively defang Tehran may prove irresistible in view of Tehran's hatred and intransigence.
As noted by Professor Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College, "When one is dealing with a national leadership which is motivated by the ethnic and religious hatred, one needs to remember that such a leadership becomes obsessed and loses its ability to calculate things."
Iran's leadership believes Russia and China will provide it protection, of which the S-300 is an important component, and that the sanctions are ineffective.
Under the circumstances, the Israel-only preventive bombing campaign - without the United States - may be too risky to pull off. If the United States sits this crisis out, Israel may develop a survivable second-strike capability and settle for deterring Iran by taking its cities and main oil facilities hostage.
This was known during the Cold War as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). This time, the world would receive it courtesy of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad.
Going MAD would make the Middle East even more fragile than now, and would make the life of its inhabitants ever more difficult and tragic.
Ariel Cohen is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times