Bruce Riedel writes: The danger of war is growing again over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran is rattling its sabers, the Republican presidential candidates and others are rattling theirs. But even if Tehran gets the bomb, Israel will have overwhelming military superiority over Iran, a fact that should not be lost in all the heated rhetoric.
The former head of Israel’s Mossad, Meir Dagan, says Iran won’t get the bomb until at least 2015. In contrast, Israel has had nuclear weapons since the late 1960s and has jealously guarded its monopoly on them in the region. The Israelis have used force in the past against developing nuclear threats. Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 were the targets of highly effective Israeli airstrikes against developing nuclear weapons programs. Israel has seriously considered conducting such a strike against Iran and may do so, especially now that it has special bunker-busting bombs from the United States.
Estimates of the size of the Israeli arsenal by international think tanks generally concur that Israel has about 100 nuclear weapons, possibly 200. Even under a crash program, Iran won’t achieve an arsenal that size for many years – perhaps decades.
Israel also has multiple delivery systems. It has intermediate range ballistic missiles, the Jericho, that are capable of reaching any target in Iran. Its fleet of F-15 long-range strike aircraft can also deliver nuclear payloads. Some analysts have suggested that it can also deliver nuclear weapons from its German-made Dolphin submarines using cruise missiles.
Israel will also continue to have conventional military superiority over Iran and the rest of the region. The Israeli military has a demonstrated qualitative edge over all of its potential regional adversaries, including Iran. The Israeli air force has the capability to penetrate air defense systems with virtual impunity, as it demonstrated in 2007 when it destroyed Syria’s nascent nuclear capability. The Israeli armed forces’ intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities are vastly superior to those of its potential rivals. The 2006 Lebanon war and the 2009 Gaza war demonstrated that there are limits to Israel’s conventional capabilities, but those limits should not obscure the underlying reality of Israel’s conventional military superiority over its enemies.
Iran, on the other hand, has never fully rebuilt its conventional military from the damage suffered in the Iran-Iraq war. It still relies heavily for air and sea power on equipment purchased by the shah 40 years ago, much of which is antique today.