Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Vic Rosenthal's weekly column

In the Fall of 2012, Bibi Netanyahu and then Minister of Defense Ehud Barak had a plan to destroy Iran’s capability to make nuclear weapons. The plan was not executed because of opposition from the Cabinet, the Israeli security establishment, and of course the Obama Administration, which was facing an election and secretly negotiating with Iran toward what would become the JCPOA.

The “nuclear deal” that was ultimately signed in 2015 provided Iran with cash for its Hezbollah terrorists and its expansion into Iraq and Syria, as well as fully legitimizing Iran’s nuclear project in 10-15 years. Even before then, the JCPOA lacked adequate safeguards to prevent cheating, and Iran took advantage of the loopholes to pursue development of uranium and plutonium bombs.

The Obama Administration was following a playbook developed – in part by advisor Ben Rhodes – in the 2006 Iraq Study Report, which intended to extricate the US from Iraq and bring about overall stability in the region by appeasing and empowering Iran and Syria (there was still an independent Syria then) at Israel’s expense. It seemed to me then, and still does today, that the negative consequences for Israel from the plan were not simply an unfortunate byproduct of it, but rather a desired outcome.

President Trump took the opposite tack, choosing to weaken Iran and empower America’s traditional allies in the region, Israel and the Sunni Arab states. He took the US out of the JCPOA, re-imposed sanctions on Iran, recognized Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan and Jerusalem (the 2006 plan envisioned Israel transferring the Golan to Syria), and encouraged an alliance between Israel and the Sunni Arab states.

If Trump’s policy to build up a strong countervailing power while weakening and isolating Iran would continue, then it might be possible to force Iran to give up its nuclear dreams without military action. But if, as seems likely, Joe Biden takes office as President of the US on 20 January 2021, then everything may change.

The following is sheer fantasy. I don’t know what the PM of Israel is thinking, I am not acquainted with anyone in the Trump Administration, the Biden team, or Israel’s defense establishment, and I have no insider knowledge about anything.

By Chanukah 5781 [10 December 2020], it became clear to the Prime Minister of Israel that President-elect Biden, although personally not particularly anti-Israel, was assembling a team heavy with individuals that were less than sympathetic to our point of view, like Susan Rice, Jake Sullivan, and Daniel Benaim. Biden had also made appointments that were concessions to the extreme left wing of the Democratic party that had almost defeated him in the race for the nomination. Intelligence reports showed a continuous flow of communications between Biden and the headquarters of the group led by Barack Obama, located only about 3 km. from the White House.

The PM of Israel was worried. Biden had already announced his intention to re-engage with Iran, which would probably mean a loosening of sanctions. The PM knew that the Iranians had recently made significant progress toward the development of a nuclear arsenal. He had no confidence that the Biden Administration would have the will to stop them; he could imagine a repeat of the JCPOA process, in which Iran made a fool of US negotiators.

Israel would have to stop Iran, or nobody would.

The PM knew that during the Obama Administration the Americans considered Israel a prime target for intelligence-gathering. The Americans had been operating a radar installation in Israel since 2008 that could spot air activity anywhere in the country, even small drones. Electronic communications in Israel’s defense headquarters, the Kiriya in Tel Aviv, have been tapped for some time. It would be very hard to take almost any kind of military action against Iran without the Americans finding out.

The PM decided that if Israel were to take action, it would have to be before 20 January, when Biden would be inaugurated. Indeed, considering the precedent of the incoming Obama team which aborted the ground invasion of Gaza in January 2009, it would have to be before Biden’s people got themselves organized. Otherwise, he was sure the Americans would act, diplomatically or even kinetically, to prevent Israel from striking the Iranian nuclear program.

Such an operation would not be simple or easy. The Iranian assets that would need to be destroyed are buried deeply underground and defended by surface-to-air missile batteries. The moment Israel attacked, the Iranians would unleash Hezbollah in Lebanon, which had some 130,000 short range rockets and longer range missiles, some with precision guidance. They are fitted on mobile launchers and ensconced in the homes of civilians. Hezbollah has plans to invade across the northern border, and kill Israelis and take hostages.

But the IDF has been preparing for this for some time. There is a plan called tochnit zayin [Plan Z]. The Prime Minister convened his mini-security cabinet, a subset of a subset of the cabinet, including the Minister of Defense and several others, together with the IDF Chief of Staff and a few key officers, including the Air Force and Navy commanders. The meeting took all of 15 minutes. The clock began to tick on tochnit zayin.

The IDF announced that it would carry out a defensive exercise on our northern border. It was not a massive exercise, and only a small number of reserve units were called up. Several days later an Israeli submarine moved into position in the Persian Gulf (or, if you prefer, the Arabian Gulf). At 0200 on the 4th day of Hanukah, the submarine fired a missile almost straight up. The missile contained a small nuclear bomb designed to maximize the production of gamma rays, and it exploded high in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 100 km. A person on the ground might see a small dot of light if he knew where to look; he would not be injured or even feel anything.

Most of the gamma radiation from the explosion was absorbed by the air. The gamma rays ripped electrons from atoms in the air, and the electrons spun downward; their motion in the Earth’s magnetic field produced a powerful pulse of electromagnetic radiation, lasting only one millionth of a second but containing an enormous amount of energy. Much of Iran was blanketed by this pulse. Electrical conductors that it passed over had high voltages induced in them, and semiconductor devices, especially those connected to power lines or antennas, were reduced to inert lumps of silicon. Telephone and cellular networks, broadcasting equipment, internet routers, the power grid, and countless other things became inoperative. Even emergency generators, with their solid-state controls, didn’t start.

When Israeli aircraft arrived to bomb the nuclear sites with multiple bunker-busters, Iranian radar was dark. When eyewitnesses tried to alert their commanders, they were unable to do so. When they finally drove to Teheran to inform their leaders (most vehicles were still operative, especially older ones), their leaders could not communicate with each other, or, importantly, with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Lebanon is too close to Israel to receive the same treatment, but units of Israeli special forces penetrated its borders and destroyed communications infrastructure and cut cables at key points. A bombing campaign followed, aimed primarily at the nervous system of the country – the power grid and communications systems. In 2006, the IDF was surprised by its inability to intercept and interrupt communications over Hezbollah’s fiber optic network. Since then, it’s been documented and mapped. It was quickly destroyed. Since 2006 the IDF has collected good intelligence about Hezbollah’s installations, including the hiding places of mobile rocket launchers and weapons depots. Many of them were destroyed almost immediately.

The Hezbollah leadership was targeted; unlike in 2006, the IDF knew where they were and was able to kill them. Without a head and a nervous system, and without support from Iran, Hezbollah was demoralized, and was unable to sustain a massive rocket attack. There was some damage to Israel’s home front, but Iron Dome and Arrow antimissile systems significantly reduced it.

All this happened in a couple of days. By the time Hanukah was over, the Lebanese government – less Hezbollah – was suing for peace. In Iran, economic paralysis had begun to set in.

The US and the Russians, who had been informed only an hour before the operation, offered to help Iran and Lebanon to rebuild, as did Israel and the Gulf states – on condition that the mullahs in Iran and what was left of Hezbollah in Lebanon would have no role in the government. They accepted.

By the time Joe Biden became president, he faced a whole new Middle East.

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