Warning: admittedly highly speculative post ahead:
Reuters has just published yet another “will there be an Israeli attack on Iran?” piece , amidst the latest spike in speculation of a possible strike against its nuclear programme. I'm beginning to wonder if such speculation is not a little behind the times.
In the last two weeks there have an explosion at an Iranian missile facility that killed a senior Revolutionary Guards figure described as the architect of the country’s missile programme h; another alleged explosion at what may have been a Hizbullah site in Lebanon ; and yet another alleged explosion at Iran’s uranium conversion facility in Isfahan.
The circumstances behind all these explosions are murky and it’s not even certain that the last two explosions happened at all, or at least not at the sites described above, never mind whether or not they were the result of sabotage or an attack. Nor is it out of the question that any of the explosions were the results of accidents. But following on from the assassination of prominent Iranian scientists with alleged links to the country’s nuclear programme (again, it’s far from clear that all of the scientists killed really were involved in the nuclear programme, but at the same time it seems unlikely that they were assassinated merely for giving boring lectures) over the course of the past year, a sudden string of “accidents” at these sensitive sites to occur back to back merely as a result of coincidence seems a little far-fetched. An explosion at a missile facility that kills such a prominent figure also seems highly suspicious and the latest evidence for an explosion having taken place at the Isfahan facility also seems pretty strong , though I suppose it’s never wise to take anything reported in the Murdoch press at face value. While these aren't the first explosions blamed on Israel to have allegedly occurred at Iranian missile sites or Hizbullah arms dumps, it does seem to be a particularly concentrated spate.
The timing of the spate of alleged attacks is also interesting. A major factor in the “will Israel/won’t Israel” equation is the US presence in Iraq, which has always been a major deterrent to an Israeli attack due to US fears that Iran could retaliate through Iraqi allies and proxies by launching major attacks on US troops in the country, as well as the fact that the shortest flight route to Iran would be through US-controlled Iraqi airspace, which would put the US in an extremely difficult position. So the likelihood of an attack was always going to increase once the US got out of Iraq. In mid-October the Obama administration announced that it had decided (or had the matter decided for it) to withdraw more or less all troops from Iraq by the end of this year. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/15/iraq-withdrawal-us-troops_n_1012661.html. Within a month, and very close to the withdrawal date, the first of what appears to be an escalated series of attacks on Iranian military and nuclear targets began.
If these explosions are real and are the result of Israeli or US/Western attacks, doesn’t that mean the much anticipated war against Iran has essentially already started? Clearly the means are different, and the scale so far smaller, than the widely expected large scale simultaneous airstrike blitz on multiple facilities; but the end result is still explosions at Iranian nuclear and missile facilities (not to mention dead Iranian scientists) and at facilities belonging to its ally Hizbullah. How many more explosions can we expect and at what point do people start describing what is happening as war, which repeated attacks on Iranian military and infrastructure facilities clearly amounts to, rather than “sabotage”?
Another thing I’m curious about is how these attacks, if that’s what they are, are being carried out. It’s generally assumed that various forms of sabotage or attacks by intelligence forces are at play. I’m willing to buy that the occasional accident or explosion. But I find it hard to believe that Mossad or the CIA and local allies such as the MEK have penetrated the Iranian military establishment so deeply as to have been able to carry out sabotage against or plant bombs in two ultra-sensitive and presumably extremely well-guarded Iranian facilities within two weeks, especially at a time when Iran has supposedly recently rolled up a local CIA network. I also find for example Richard Silverstein’s explanation for how Israel supposedly attacked the Hizbullah arms dump (by deliberately crash-landing a booby trapped drone that Hizbullah than brought to the facility) a little convoluted.
One possibility that I haven’t seen widely considered yet is that Israel, or even the US, is simply carrying out good old-fashioned airstrikes, possibly in the form of unmanned drone strikes (though interestingly, Le Figaro reported that an explosion last year at Imam Ali Shehab-3 missile base might have been the result of an Israeli airstrike). After all, unclaimed drone strikes have expanded massively throughout the region in the past few years are being carried out routinely in several other countries by the US in particular. Israel last year was reported to be in possession of a new range of drones capable of reaching Iran , while the US unquestionably has bases in the region that it could launch such strikes from. Of course, in many ways it doesn’t really matter how the attacks were carried out -– a bomb attack is a bomb attack and an act of war is an act of war, regardless of how it’s delivered – but I think the opening up of some sort of air campaign would be widely perceived as a notable escalation in the conflict against Iran in comparison to “sabotage” activities that have long been widely regarded as taking place in Iran.
A covert, low intensity (compared to a full-on simultaneous strike at a range of nuclear and military targets) campaign of drone strikes or other forms of bombings in combination with other activities such as assassinations and sabotage seems like a logical choice for anti-Iranian forces, given widespread claims that such a large-scale strike would not do much more than delay the programme while also potentially sparking sparking a major regional war and an oil price spike that would be crippling for the already stalling US and global economies.
Why would smaller scale strikes not do the same (ie trigger Iranian retaliation and a regional war)? One reason is that isolated explosions are deniable in a way that the full-on simultaneous destruction of numerous nuclear facilities isn’t, allowing for the consequences of a full-scale attack to be avoided. That matters for whoever is carrying them out but it also matters for Iran, because Iran almost certainly doesn’t want to get sucked into a war with Israel and the US, because it would inevitably lose. Of course Iran has retaliatory options, and knows that the US is unlikely to have the capability or desire to actually invade Iran and overthrow the regime. All the same, if Iran were to start sustainedly lobbing missiles at Israel and Saudi oil infrastructure and to try to cut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the US would almost certainly bomb its military infrastructure, and probably its civilian infrastructure too, back to year zero, which is not exactly an attractive outcome for the regime. That Iran does not appear willing to get dragged into such a conflict is underlined by the fact that, with the possible exception of the absurd-seeming alleged plot to carry out attacks in the US through an incompetent used car salesman and a Mexican drugs cartel, it has so far appeared to fail to respond to other blatant provocations and attacks such as the blatant assassination of Iranian scientists and the Stuxnet computer virus attack on its nuclear programme; just as Iranian ally Syria failed to respond to the Israeli air raid on a nuclear reactor several years ago and the assassination of one of their senior military figures, and Hizbullah and Hamas, despite much doom-mongering, have failed to respond to the assassination of high-level members such as Imad Mughniyeh.
Of course, if Israel launched an obvious undisguised large scale airstrike on Iran, it would clearly be politically very difficult for Iran to sit back and do nothing; the regime could well feel forced by popular and nationalist pressure, as well as the dangers associated with being seen to be powerless to respond to large-scale military attack, to engage in some kind of retaliation, irrespective of the consequences. But when it comes to smaller-scale, isolated attacks, the regime can write them off as accidents or isolated incidents not worth responding to, which makes them more attractive for everyone.The risk of course is that such attacks continue to the point where it becomes obvious to everybody what’s actually happening and the regime figures it can no longer feign ignorance, potentially sparking a catastrophic full-scale war.