An attack two weeks ago that destroyed an advanced Russian missile shipment delivered to Syria’s Assad regime should also serve as a warning to Iran – and to those complacent Western diplomats who have (dangerously in my view) reconciled themselves to the idea of allowing Iran to go nuclear and then trying to contain it. For it seems that the July 5 attack on an arms depot near the Syrian naval base of Latakia, which has been attributed to Israel, came not from the air (as CNN and the New York Times reported last weekend) but from under the water.
Many Western officials who have apparently concluded that Israel could only destroy Iran’s nuclear program from the air – and that Israel does not have the capability to carry out such long-range air strikes in a decisive way – should take note. In recent years, Israel has greatly advanced its sea-based capabilities, and the geographical range of operations that Israel can mount from the sea, I am reliably told, now spans the entire globe. Israeli submarines are no longer confining themselves to the Mediterranean.
Last Saturday, the United States appeared to confirm that Israel was behind the July 5 attack on 50 Russian Yakhont anti-ship missiles in Latakia. Both the New York Times and CNN quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying the strike was carried out by Israel from the air. The state-of-the-art Yakhont missiles have a range of 300 kilometers and are considered to be among the best of their kind in the world – for example, they can evade radar by flying just above water surface. They were of significant concern to both the U.S. and Israel because their range and sophistication meant they could neutralize the ability of both nations’ navies to patrol the region, and they could also complicate the ability of the U.S. or other states to enforce a future no-fly zone over Syria should they wish to implement one. Israel was also concerned that Syria would allow the missiles to fall into the hands of its arch enemy, the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah militia.
But on Sunday, a more intriguing scenario was raised when the (London) Sunday Times reported that the attack was not carried out from the air, but by precision-guided missiles fired from Israel’s German-made Dolphin-class submarines. I am told by informed sources that this is a more likely scenario.
When asked in a CBS interview about reports of Israeli responsibility for the Latakia strike, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in line with Israel’s long-standing policy of neither confirming nor denying such actions, said, “Oh God, every time something happens in the Middle East, Israel is accused. I’m not in the habit of saying what we did or we didn’t do. I’ll tell you what my policy is: My policy is to prevent the transfer of dangerous weapons to Hezbollah and other terror groups. And we stand by that policy.”
“The fact that the crisis in Syria is getting worse by the minute is the central consideration in my eyes,” he added. “Syria is disintegrating, and the huge advanced weapons stockpiles are beginning to fall into the hands of different forces.”
Even more alarming for Israel, however, is that Iran is said to be only weeks away from crossing Netanyahu’s “red line” of possessing 250 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium – enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.
Netanyahu told CBS that Iran was now just 60 kilograms short of crossing this line, and “they should understand that they’re not going to be allowed to cross it.” His assessment is in line with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report in May, which alleged that Iran possessed 182 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium.
Israel fears that the Iran situation is becoming critical at the exact same time when there has been a lowering of the sense of urgency among many Western officials. Many in the West have become distracted from the Iranian nuclear issue due to a focus on events in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, coupled with the election last month of the regime-approved Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president, whom Netanyahu called “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” In Israel Rouhani is viewed as far more sly and dangerous than the outgoing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who often embarrassed himself with outrageous statements about the Holocaust, homosexuals, and so on.
Israel believes that a nuclear Shia Islamic regime in Tehran will not only prove to be a threat to the entire region and beyond, but it will almost certainly result in nuclear proliferation among the Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia (who could simply buy a nuclear arsenal from fellow Sunni Pakistan) and Egypt, states which are liable to become far less stable in future. (Israel is believed to have had nuclear weapons for the last 50 years but it has never threatened to use them – or even acknowledged their existence – and it is only the specter of Iran gaining them that now so worries the Arab states.)
American and European diplomats I have spoken to recently seem to have concluded that America doesn’t have the willingness to stop Iran from going nuclear, and Israel doesn’t have the means.
They have not taken on board the full range of Israel’s ability to attack Iranian nuclear installations. The Israeli air force has limited flight range while carrying heavy payloads, but submarines can place themselves much closer to Iranian nuclear installations. Iran has sonar capabilities, and has devoted considerable resources to confronting both surface and underwater naval threats, yet it remains vulnerable to both. It is much harder to track the movement of submarines than it is of aircraft.
Combine this with the sophisticated electronic measures Israel is known to have mastered, for example, the use of EMP (electromagnetic pulses) and malicious computer code introduced into critical infrastructure, and possible special forces operations launched remotely, and it appears Iran and the West have more than an Israeli air strike to consider.
An EMP of the kind Israel has developed, for example, can be emitted from installations the size of a suitcase smuggled into Iran by land and used to disable specific buildings or target specific offices – for example, the office of the Iranian defense minister, to make it impossible for him to communicate by phone or computer with the outside world for a period of time.
It is still not too late for the Iranian regime to stand down or for the West to ratchet up sanctions to make them do so. If Iran does back down it may be a result of a realization that Israeli capacity to attack and stop them is far greater than might at first be apparent.
Tom Gross is a former Mideast correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph.