Tel Aviv — The Obama administration’s announced arms sale to Israel this week has raised as many questions as it answers.
On the one hand, the sale includes advanced mid-air refueling tanker planes necessary for any Israeli jet fighter attack on Iran’s nuclear production sites. The distance between Israel and the furthest targets in Iran is more than 1,000 nautical miles, thus requiring Israeli jets to refuel at the halfway point. President George W. Bush had rejected a request for those aircrafts.
By selling these tankers to Israel now, the Obama administration appears to be sending a message to Iran that it wants to ensure that an Israeli unilateral air strike succeeds.
Israel currently has only about 10 such tankers, and the loss of one or two of them could threaten the success of an Israeli air strike against Iranian nuclear production sites. And because Iran is reportedly expanding the number of such production sites, Israel would need more tankers to be able to strike at more targets. Analysts note that the Boeing KC-135 that the United States is selling Israel is much more advanced than the refueling jets in Israel’s fleet. It is said to have more efficient engines, redesigned wings and an advanced electronic and avionic system.
On the other hand, the Obama administration failed to provide Israel with the bunker-busting bombs Israel would need to penetrate the mountains and deeply buried sites in which Iran has been developing in nuclear program. One site at Fordo is said to be buried more than 200 feet under a mountain.
Not only would Israel need the bombs to destroy the nuclear sites, it would also need aircrafts to carry the bombs, which reportedly weigh about 30,000 pounds. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the U.S. has been “reluctant to even discuss selling such capability to the Israelis.”
In contrast to the open bickering last year between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama over setting a timetable should military intervention be necessary, the two allies have closed ranks in public and left their differences — which still exist — for the backrooms.
In recent weeks, Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — who arrived here Sunday for a three-day visit — have come, given bear hugs to Israeli leaders and insisted that Israel has the right to decide for itself how to defend against Iran.
The U.S. is also selling Israel missiles designed to cripple Iran’s air defense system and the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey — an airplane-helicopter hybrid that takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like an airplane. It is the first time the plane is being sold to another country.
Analysts said American public declarations — like Obama’s “You are not alone” — and the arms sales are an effort to restore Israeli confidence in U.S. assurances that it won’t allow Iran to obtain nuclear capability. Such assurances, Washington hopes, would keep Israel from surprising it with a unilateral attack.
“It’s an act of sophisticated hand holding,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “It’s so Israel will take U.S. interests into account and not act on its own.”
At a press conference Tuesday, Hagel reiterated that Israel has the right to act in order to defend itself, and that only Israel could make a decision whether or not to go it alone.
“Nobody wants to pick any fights between the U.S. and Israel,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute. “Hagel is new and Yaalon is new; they want to work together. But Israel thinks that Iran is using diplomacy to run out the clock, and the U.S. wants to exhaust every diplomatic option before resorting to force.”
As if to ratchet up pressure on the Iranian front, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, Amos Yadlin, took the podium at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies conference Tuesday to say the Iranians had already crossed the red line set by Netanyahu in September. Yadlin, who now serves as the director of the Institute for National Security Studies, said that the Iranians already had enough enriched uranium for six bombs, and could assemble an explosive within two months.
Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Iran expert, said: “We can’t say with certainty that Iran will cross the red line. Iran is sensitive to the sanctions.”
Jadvedanfar said he believes Iran’s leader is more concerned about economic collapse than building a nuclear bomb. What’s more, he noted, it’s unclear how long it will take to equip a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead — and any such effort would be hard to conceal from international inspectors.
Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent; Stewart Ain is a staff writer.