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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Avoiding the Unthinkable: Missile Defense is Israel's "Secret" Weapon Against Iran's Nuclear Weapons


By Barry Rubin*


Remember the name Uzi Rubin because he might emerge as the most important individual in the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons drive. Rubin is the former head of Israel’s missile defense program and now a defense consultant. He has developed the best alternative (or supplement) to blocking the dangers of a radical Islamist, genocidal-oriented, terrorist supporting, antisemitic regime having nuclear-tipped missiles pointed at Israel.

Briefly, Rubin and his colleagues have been developing a multi-layered defense system consisting of long-range Arrow missiles (developed in cooperation with the United States), medium-range David’s Sling interceptor missiles, and the short-range Iron Dome system aimed against the kind of rockets being fired by Hizballah and Hamas. By the time Iran gets nuclear weapons, and in some cases well before, these systems will all be operational.

None of these systems are perfect. For example, Iron Dome will not protect small areas of Israel closest to the Gaza border but will shield more populated places deeper inside Israel.

For those actually facing attack by rockets or missiles, what is most important is that the number of incoming warheads—and hence both casualties and damage--be reduced to the minimum possible number.

This would undermine the strategy used by Hizballah against Israel in 2006 and Hamas from the Gaza Strip more recently of mass rocket attacks as a means of sowing terror among civilians, disrupting life in Israel, and gaining strategic leverage. In addition, if Israel ever does attack Iran’s nuclear installation, these systems will reduce the effectiveness of retaliation by Iran’s client groups.

In addition, missile defense is part of a triad of ways to counter Iran, along with diplomatic efforts plus sanctions (sadly lagging) and a direct attack on Iran’s facilities. Since even an effective attack would only slow down and not completely stop Tehran’s efforts, missile defense may emerge as the most important of these three factors.

Obviously, of course, there is a problem with nuclear threats that doesn’t exist with rockets: even if one or two get through the results would be catastrophic. Uzi Rubin has a detailed answer that goes something like this:

For Iran to attack Israel with nuclear missiles, any even marginally rational commanders know they need to knock out Israel’s air force bases lest an Israeli second strike devastate Iran. To feel at all secure, Iran needs to launch a minimum of three missiles simultaneously against each airfield. Missile defenses, however, keep pushing up that number to the point where an Israeli second strike becomes unavoidable. Thus, any attack on Israel is clearly suicidal. This makes such an attack less likely.

But, you can say, it is a mistake to regard the Iranian regime as purely rational. This is far truer of the regime today than it was a year ago. And even then it is far truer of elements in the regime, including those who will have actual possession of the nuclear weapons.

How often do you see the point made in the Western media that the missiles and atomic bombs will be controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the part of the regime closest to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the institution that is gaining growing power over Iran, and the one with the closest ties to terrorists abroad?

True as this is, missile defense becomes all the more important by providing protection against an “irrational” attack. Combined with direct air strikes on Iranian launchers, this becomes an impressive defensive system. The maximum possible deterrent gives the maximum possible protection and the greatest possible discouragement for Iran from starting a war.

Remember, too, that the number of atomic bombs Iran can build is going to be relatively limited in number, while the number which can be launched simultaneously (especially very fast) is even fewer.

Finally, there is more than one way to "use" nuclear weapons which involves flourishing rather than firing them. Much of the Iranian regime bluster about attacking Israel is designed to give Tehran greater leverage in the region. Israel can defend itself; Iran's Arab neighbors cannot and must depend on the United States--not the greatest assurance nowadays--to counter Iran's influence and power. Given their weakness and vulnerability to internal subversion, Arabic-speaking states are more likely to be the main target where Tehran regime's threats can achieve results.

In short, missile defense in combination with other efforts cannot necessarily provide perfect defense but it can provide the best possible defense. It is far more likely to be effective than the sadly weak diplomatic-sanction defense offered by divided and timid Western countries. Indeed, it might not be long before some of these are buying Israeli made systems, which the U.S. military is reportedly already planning to deploy.



*Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org
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