Iran, Israel, and Air Defense: What, Exactly, Is the “Threat”?

A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran had sent Syria a “sophisticated radar system that could threaten Israel’s ability to launch a surprise attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.”  The story cited reporting from “two Israeli officials, two U.S. officials and a Western intelligence source,” and was “confirmed . . . by the Israeli military.”  We are somewhat confused by the reporter, Charles Levinson, writing that the “Israeli military” has “confirmed” the transfer which had been “described” by his other sources.  As far as we can tell from the story as it was written by Mr. Levinson, only Iran and Syria could have “confirmed” the reports from Mr. Levinson’s sources.  (For the record, both Iran and Syria have denied that any radar transfer took place, as Mr. Levinson duly notes in his story.)

Of course, none of Mr. Levinson’s sources offered any information as to “how they determined the shipment took place or discuss the radar’s type or capacity.”  But his sources assure Mr. Levinson that the new radar “would give Syria and its ally Iran improved visibility of Israeli air space and provide early warning of any imminent strike.”

Furthermore, Mr. Levinson’s sources are concerned that Syria might share data from the new radar with Hizballah.  Mr. Levinson cites one non-official “electronic warfare and radar expert” arguing that, if this happened, it would “likely increase the accuracy and lethality of Hezbollah missiles aimed at Israeli cities (sic),” as well as “incoming Israeli aircraft.”  But Mr. Levinson’s official sources seem to be focused on the potential contributions that the radar might make to Hizballah’s defensive/deterrent capabilities (and even Hizballah’s missile force is best understood as a deterrent capability): “A clear picture of the skies above Israel and Lebanon would give Hezbollah greater freedom of movement during any conflict, since the group would know when its fighters were at risk of being bombed from the air.”

So, if we have read Mr. Levinson’s story correctly — the transfer of sophisticated Iranian air defense radars to Syria (if said transfer actually happened) is/would be a bad thing because:

  • it would give Iran more warning time, and hence a better chance to defend itself against an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear targets; and
  • if data from that new radar were shared with Hizballah, Hizballah would be in a better position to defend Lebanon against offensive Israeli military action.

It seems to us that there is a pattern here.  Israeli commandos rappel down ropes from helicopters to board Turkish vessels on the high seas — and people on board those vessels “attacked” the commandos.  (As we wrote recently, what, exactly, is the legal basis for expecting people on board the ships to welcome, or at least acquiesce to, forcible boarding on the high seas?)  Russia concludes a contract to provide Iran with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles (which cannot possibly be used in an offensive manner) and the United States and Europe exert strenuous efforts to forestall delivery of such a “provocative” weapons system.  And now, anti-aircraft radars in Syria are another “threat” to Israel’s security.

The pattern is grounded in a reality that we’ve previously identified: Israeli political and policy elites are intent on preserving a regional balance of power that is strongly tilted in Israel’s favor.  They want to forestall any developments — Iran acquiring a perceived nuclear “breakout” capability, Turkey delivering aid directly to Gaza, or Syria improving its air defense capabilities — that would constrain Israel’s currently unconstrained freedom of unilateral military action.  As we wrote in December,

One can readily appreciate why Israel values its status as the Middle East’s military hegemon and wants to maintain the maximum possible room for unilateral military initiative.  But that strategic preference is not legitimated by the U.N. Charter, the laws of war, or any international convention.  Moreover, Israel’s strategic preference for preserving and enhancing its military hegemony does not, at this point, serve the cause of regional stability or containing the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities in the Middle East.

You do not have to take our word for this.  In May, a group of retired senior IDF officers, Israeli diplomats, and Israeli intelligence officials conducted a war game, under the auspices of the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliyya, which assumed that Iran had acquired a nuclear weapons capability.  Our former colleague Dan Kurtzer played the U.S. President in the war game, which was also attended by the leader of the opposition in the Knesset, Tzipi Livni.  As Israeli conference participants subsequently told Western media, the main problem with an Iranian nuclear capability is not that such a capability poses some sort of “existential threat” to Israel, but that it “would blunt Israel’s military autonomy.”  One participant, a retired Director of Military Intelligence for the IDF, even said that, if Iran obtained a nuclear weapons capability (which, of course, Iran denies it is seeking), it would treat that capability as a means of “self defence and strategic balance.”

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was published in The Race for Iran on 5 July 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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