The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been telling Israelis that Israel can attack Iran with minimal civilian Israeli casualties as a result of retaliation, and that reassuring message appears to have headed off any widespread Israeli fear of war with Iran and other adversaries.
But the message that Iran is too weak to threaten an effective counterattack is contradicted by one of Israel’s leading experts on Iranian missiles and the head of its missile defence programme for nearly a decade, who says Iranian missiles are capable of doing significant damage to Israeli targets.
The Israeli population has shown little serious anxiety about the possibility of war with Iran, in large part because they have not been told that it involves a risk of Iranian missiles destroying Israeli neighbourhoods and key economic and administrative targets.
“People are not losing sleep over this,” Yossi Alpher, a consultant and writer on strategic issues and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, told IPS in an interview. “This is not a preoccupation of the public the way the suicide bombers were a decade ago.”
Alpher says one reason for the widespread lack of urgency about a possible war with Iran is that the scenarios involving such a war are “so nebulous in the eyes of the public that it’s difficult for them to focus on it”.
Aluf Benn, the editor in chief of Haaretz, told IPS in an interview, “There is no war mentality,” although he added, “that could change overnight.” One reason for the relative public calm about the issue, he suggested, is the official view that Iran’s ability to retaliate is “very limited”.
Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in Bloomberg Mar. 20 that “Some Israel officials believe Iran’s leaders might choose to play down the insult of a raid and launch a handful of rockets at Tel Aviv as an angry gesture rather than declare all-out war.”
But Uzi Rubin, who was in charge of Israel’s missile defence from 1991 to 1999 and presided over the development of the Arrow anti- missile system, has a much more sombre view of Iran’s capabilities.
The “bad news” for Israel, Rubin told us in an interview, is that the primary factor affecting Iran’s capability to retaliate is the rapidly declining cost of increased precision in ballistic missiles. Within a very short time, Iran has already improved the accuracy of its missiles from a few kilometres from the target to just a few metres, according to Rubin.
That improvement would give Iran the ability to hit key Israeli economic infrastructure and administrative targets, he said. “I’m asking my military friends how they feel about waging war without electricity,” said Rubin.
The consequences of Iranian missile strikes on administrative targets could be even more serious, Rubin believes. “If the civilian government collapses,” he said, “the military will find it difficult to wage a war.”
Rubin is even worried that, if the accuracy of Iranian missiles improves further, which he believes is “bound to happen”, Iran will be able to carry out pinpoint attacks on Israel’s air bases, which are concentrated in just a few places.
Some Israeli analysts have suggested that Israel could hit Iranian missiles in a preemptive strike, but Rubin said Israel can no longer count on being able to hit Iranian missiles before they are launched.
Iran’s longer-range missiles have always been displayed on mobile transporter erector launchers (TELs), as Rubin pointed out in an article in Arms Control Today earlier this year. “The message was clear,” Rubin wrote. “Iran’s missile force is fully mobile, hence, not pre-emptable.”
Rubin, who has argued for more resources to be devoted to the Arrow anti-missile system, acknowledged that it can only limit the number of missiles that get through. In an e-mail to us, he cited the Arrow system’s record of more than 80 percent success in various tests over the years, but also noted that such a record “does not assure an identical success rate in real combat”.
The United States and Israel began in 2009 developing a new version of the Arrow missile defence system called “Reshef” – “Flash” – or “Arrow 3”, aimed at intercepting Iranian missiles above the atmosphere and farther away from Israeli territory than the earlier version of the Arrow. The new anti-missile system can alter the trajectory of the defensive missile and distinguish decoys from real missile reentry vehicles.
Until last November, the Arrow 3 system was not expected to become operational until 2015. And that plan was regarded by U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) as probably too ambitious, because such a system would normally take a decade from conception to deployment.
But Xinhua news agency reported in November that Israeli Air Force officials said they expected Arrow 3 to become operational by mid- 2013, cutting even that abbreviated timeline for development of the system in half.
Nevertheless, the ability of the Arrow 3 system to shoot down an incoming missile still has not been announced, although an Israeli official said March 1 that such a test would take place after the meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
In December 2008, Western intelligence sources were reported by Israel’s Ynet News as saying the improved version of the Shahab 3 missile had gone into production earlier that year and that Iran was believed to be able to produce 75 of the improved missiles annually.
Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, then IDF chief of staff, told a visiting Congressional delegation in November 2009 that Iran already had 300 missiles capable of hitting Israeli targets, according to a U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.
Those reports suggest that Iran now has roughly 450 missiles that can reach Israel, half of which are improved models with much greater precision. Even if only one-fifth of those missiles get through Israel’s missile defences, Israeli cities could be hit by at least 100, most of which are able to hit targets with relative accuracy.
The Netanyahu government has sought to minimise the threat of Iranian retaliation for an Israeli strike against Iran in part by likening war with Iran to those fought against Hezbollah and Palestinian rockets in recent years, which have resulted in relatively few Israeli civilian casualties.
That was the message that Israeli military officials conveyed to the Israeli news media after an escalation of violence between the IDF and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza earlier this month.
Columnist Zvi Barel of Haaretz speculated on Mar. 11 that the purpose of the escalation, provoked by the IDF assassination of Zuhair al- Qaisi, the secretary general of the Popular Resistance Committee in Gaza, was to show the Israeli public that Israeli missile defence system could protect the population against rockets that the IDF linked to Iran.
Barel went even further. “After Iron Dome demonstrated its 95 percent effectiveness,” he wrote, “there is no better proof to Israel’s citizens that they will not suffer serious damage following an assault on Iran.”
The success of the Iron Dome against short-range rockets from Gaza is irrelevant, however, to what could be expected from a relatively untested Arrow system against Iranian ballistic missiles aimed at Israeli targets.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.