The outcome of talks set to begin Saturday between world powers and Iran over its disputed nuclear program could be a determining factor in whether Israel carries out threatened airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
With Western patience running thin, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warns that time for diplomacy is not “infinite” and that “all options remain on the table.” Israel says it will not stand by as fears grow that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability - an allegation Iran denies.
China said recently that an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would set in motion a military backlash with far-ranging consequences. Analysts interviewed by VOA say an attack on Iran is likely to provoke a retaliatory missile barrage on Israel by Iran and its allies.
They say Iran-sponsored terror could erupt against Jewish targets worldwide, U.S. interests, and American allies such as Saudi Arabia, which could be perceived by Iran as supportive of an Israeli strike.
Current and former U.S. and Israeli officials and Iran experts say it is far less likely that Iran would carry out its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, a route for 35 percent of the world’s seaborne oil. They say Iran also is unlikely to use its antiquated air or ground forces in direct operations against Israel, the U.S. or Gulf Arab nations.
The scenarios described by them are supported by a VOA analysis of Iran’s military arsenal. It shows major weaknesses in conventional firepower, but a flourishing ballistic missile program with the largest deployment in the Middle East.
Israel attack looms
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told The Washington Post in February that he believed there was a strong likelihood Israel would attack Iran sometime before June - and prior to Tehran entering what Israeli leaders have called a “zone of immunity,” a point beyond which it would no longer be possible to halt Iran’s nuclear advancement towards weapon-making.
On Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran would not surrender its nuclear rights "even under the most difficult pressure."
The Iranian government has warned it would retaliate in the event of a strike on its nuclear facilities. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech last month that Tehran “will attack on the same level as the enemies attack us.”
But while lethal, Iran’s ability to hit Israeli military targets remains limited.
Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said none of the operational ballistic missiles in Iran’s arsenal capable of reaching Israel - the liquid propellant Shahab 3 and its longest-range variant, the Ghadr 1 - are accurate and would primarily be used “to sow terror.”
“Iran might feel it has to launch a missile or two,” Fitzpatrick said, “but they are not going to do much damage and would provoke further retaliation from Israel.”
Uzi Rubin, the former director of Israel’s missile defense organization, said Iran's medium-range missiles could do significant damage.
Rubin warns that Iran's 750 kg warheads could “inflict serious casualties if not intercepted and slow Israel’s economy simply by closing down air and sea ports.” He calculated Iran is capable of manufacturing up to 50 Shahab 3s per year and is likely to have about 400 in its current arsenal.
Iran to call on allies
Analysts say it is far more likely, though, that Iran may ask its allies in Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories to inflict revenge on Israel.
“Iran is more likely to hit back using proxy forces, sleeper cells and sympathizers who are closer,” Fitzpatrick said.
Rubin says Syria is “the real gravitational center of the missile and rocket threat against Israel because of the proximity of our territories.” He said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Iran, may view an attack on Israel as “an escape from his battle against anti-government rebels and a way to win over Islamist elements within the country’s [Sunni Muslim] opposition.”
Still, analysts say regional and internal pressures complicate the willingness of Iran's allies to participate.
Retired Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, former head of strategic planning for the Israeli military's general staff, said the year-plus opposition uprising in Syria has tied Mr. Assad’s hands.
With mounting international pressure on the Syrian government to end its internal crackdown, Brom said it is “highly improbable” that Syria would join Iran in retaliatory strikes on Israel.
To Israel's southwest, in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas movement has for years been seen as an Iranian proxy. Palestinian militants regularly fire rockets into southern Israel while Israeli forces respond with air strikes against Gaza.
But Hamas has recently begun to distance itself from the Shi’ite-run governments of Iran and Syria, making its participation in an Iranian-led conflict less likely.
Hezbollah may help Iran
That leaves Hezbollah, considered one of Iran’s most capable surrogates, armed with an estimated 40,000 rockets and the capacity to launch about 1,000 strikes per day - though with more limited capabilities than Iran.
The Lebanon-based militia has Iranian-made Fatah 110s, a powerful, guided missile “that can concentrate firepower on military targets and major infrastructure,” Rubin said.
Hezbollah also has a large number of unguided, short-range Grad and Fajr light rockets Rubin characterized as “terror weapons” because of their ability to “wreak havoc in population centers.”
Hezbollah also has Syrian-supplied Scud-Ds and Iranian-made Zeilzal 1s. Each boast a large payload and “can hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” Fitzpatrick said.
But Hezbollah, too, may be reluctant to carry out Iran’s bidding.
In Brom’s view, there is a “reasonable possibility” the group would decline to participate in Iranian retaliation because it would suffer “enormous political damage due to the perception that [it] is willing to sacrifice Lebanon for foreign interests.”
Israel prepares defense
In the event Hezbollah does join in, Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, aimed at short-range projectiles, would be put to the test.
Israeli officials said the system shot down 77 percent of about 300 incoming rockets and mortar shells fired last month from Gaza during four days of skirmishes with Palestinian militants. A second missile shield, Arrow II, designed to intercept Iranian Shahab 3s, has only been used in trials. It boasts a shoot-down rate of 90 percent.
Most Israeli estimates forecast a limited Iranian response. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said any Iranian retaliation would be “bearable,” probably claiming fewer than 500 Israeli lives.
Beyond direct retaliation against Israel, Iran could also attempt to restrict some of the world's oil flow.
Analyst Fitzpatrick says Tehran could impose quasi-legal restrictions in waters it controls west of the Strait of Hormuz. Tankers and other ships “would be required to provide detailed inventories and submit to onerous inspections designed to impede traffic flow,” he said.
Fitzpatrick's London think-tank foresees a "sea-denial" strategy where Iran attacks “isolated or poorly defended ships [using] mines, torpedoes, rockets and anti-ship missiles.” A traditional sea blockade would be virtually impossible given the small size of Iran’s surface fleet.
Most experts doubt Iran would attempt to completely close the waterway since Tehran is heavily dependent on petroleum exports, all of which currently transit the strait and make up approximately 70 percent of government revenues.
And it is likely, too, that an international naval response would keep oil tankers moving through the strait, limiting Iran's attack options on the high seas.
Conflict out of control
More worrisome, analysts say, is that regional conflict could spiral with unpredictable consequences.
“When you get into an escalatory dynamic of this type, you’re getting on a tiger’s back and you cannot always pick the place to dismount,” former U.S. national security official Ray Takeyh told a Brookings Institution forum late last year.
A classified U.S. war game held last month warned of a protracted regional conflict “which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead,” The New York Times recently reported.
Trita Parsi, president of the Washington DC-based National Iranian-American Council, said Iran’s experience in the 1980-88 war with Iraq will drive Tehran to ensure any potential conflict “is not limited to its own soil.”
Parsi warns the likely outcome of a successful preemptive strike by Israel or the United States would be “an enlargement of the war with very unpredictable repercussions.”
Brom, now a Tel Aviv-based security analyst, fears Tehran's calculations on how far it can go without broadening the conflict may backfire.
“Governments are prone to miscalculation, so [escalated retaliation] can happen, especially under the stress of being attacked,” he said.