20 Feb 2012

Iran questions: How close is war?

Channel 4 News takes a closer look at the hurdles between Israel and an attack on Iran.

Iran questions: How close is war? (Getty)

Iran appears to be inching closer to the prospect of defending itself against a military strike by the day. As International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors gather evidence on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, the noises coming from Tehran sound as defiant as ever.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has dampened speculation about the visit, saying that the IAEA officials would not be going to any nuclear sites. “No. Their work has just begun,” he told student news agency, ISNA.

His comments will do little to calm Israeli claims that Iran is poised to launch a nuclear attack, with Foreign Secretary William Hague this weekend joining the chorus of voices calling for Israeli restraint.

Channel 4 News asks how likely is it that Israel will launch a military strikes against Iran? And if they want to, what are the hurdles they will need to overcome?

Why would Israel attack Iran?

Rhetoric from Israel has been increasingly bullish. Analysts say that Israel feels threatened by Iran and its apparent nuclear capabilities amid an apparent sea of hostility from Iran’s neighbours. While Israel is said to be fearful of Iranian nuclear activities, they are also concerned that Israel is funding and arming Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and has links with Hamas in Gaza.

The more Iran takes steps to enrage, the more an attack becomes likely. Prof Malcolm Chalmers

How much of this is Iranian brinkmanship?

While most agree that Iran is engaged in a game of brinkmanship, Professor Malcolm Chalmers, of defence think tank, the Royal United Services Institute told Channel 4 News it is a “dangerous” one.

“The more Iran takes steps to enrage [opponents], the more an attack becomes likely,” he said. But Iran’s policy is not consistent with an entirely civilian purpose, he added, though it is difficult to know given the lack of transparency over facilities and sites. If they haven’t already got nuclear weapons, then they are as close as they have ever been, Professor Chalmers said, “whether they have crossed the threshold or not”.

The problem, Professor Chalmers says, is that the more they appear to be hiding a nuclear weapons facility, the closer it brings them to attack by Israel. “At that stage, there is a window of opportunity for other countries to attack them, before they are capable of producing more.”

Would an attack on Iran work?

Defence and security experts say probably not. Indeed, it has been claimed that any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could backfire disastrously. While Natanz, the uranium enrichment plant south of Tehran, is only protected by concrete blocks, other sites are far better protected – not least by the natural terrain. Last month, Iran said it had begun uranium enrichment at the heavily fortified site of Fordo, near the holy city of Qom.

“If they launch an attack on Fordo, there is a risk it will not be fully successful and centrifuges would survive,” said Professor Chalmers. “They would be bombing a mountain to get somewhere that’s buried hundreds of metres underground. It may not be very effective, and they may be using munitions which are not used for these kinds of purposes.”

The result for Israel, he said, could be “the worst of both worlds”. “They could launch a major attack and then when it finishes, Iran would say ‘you couldn’t destroy what you wanted.'”

Does Israel have the weapons capabilities to launch military strikes against Iran?

Again, probably not. For Israel, Professor Chalmers added, existing military capabilities may not stretch that far. Israeli aircraft – namely F15s and F16s – can be positioned to attack Iranian targets. But this would require them to refuel along the way, and with Iraq their best option for refuelling, that option is all but off the table given that the Iraqis have only just regained control of their airspace. Alternatively, they would need to rely on Turkey or Saudi Arabia to stop for fuel – all of which may no longer be options depending on the diplomatic mood of the time.

A bigger problem would emerge if any strike on Iran led to counter-strikes on US targets in the Middle East. As election year in the US reaches fever pitch, President Barack Obama‘s conciliatory tones risk becoming more belligerent in the face of Republican claims that he is “soft” on Iran.

Will it work in the long term?

Even if Israel does mount an attack, the chances are that any setbacks will be temporary, Professor Chalmers said. Iran has already developed the expertise, know-how and can procure the equipment it needs to produce nuclear weapons. They may succeed in holding Iranian nuclear ambitions back, but it is unlikely they will be able to halt them for good.

What would be required under international law for Israel to attack Iran?

Experts in international law say that broadly, there are two legal routes by which countries can engage in the use of armed force. The first is the UN Security Council. But for a resolution to be passed, it would have to be agreed upon unanimously by the five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the US and the UK – and four out of 10 non-permanent members. Most agree that as matters stand, agreement from China and Russia looks unlikely.

The other legal basis for war in international law is on the grounds of self-defence, said Professor Malcolm Shaw QC, a practising barrister and senior fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at Cambridge university and part-time research professor in International Law at the University of Leicester. Grounded in Article 51 of the UN Charter, the principle gives states the right to self-defence, including collective self-defence, against armed attack. The UK’s action during the Falklands War can be seen as an example of this.

Crucially, however, another aspect of this right is anticipatory self-defence, where it is feared that an attack is imminent. Modern warfare means that this can be a matter of seconds – as with missiles, or nuclear weapons – in which case, pre-emptive strikes may be legally justified. This was the argument used in 1967, when Israel attacked Egypt.

But there is a caveat, Professor Shaw said. “The response has to be proportionate to the threat,” he said. “If Iran were to threaten Israel, for example, with a nuclear strike, then Israel would be justified in taking out a nuclear missile. But if Iran were to send 20 soldiers into a neighbouring state, as a military demonstration, then bombing Tehran would not be appropriate.”

More recently, armed attack on the grounds of humanitarian intervention has been invoked, as was the case with the Nato action in Kosovo in 1999. However, “it remains a controversial justification,” Professor Shaw said. “There is nothing in the UN charter about it. However, it is credible, if divisive.”

Has international law stopped Israel before?

Again, not always, no. Neither has it stopped the US, Israel’s closest ally. Israel has already tried to attack nuclear programmes in Iraq, in 1981, when it bombed a Baghdad nuclear reactor. News of the raid only emerged 24 hours later, after Israel announced it had done so, and the attack was described by the UN Security Council as a “clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations”. In 2007, Israel launched an airstrike on a nuclear reactor in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria. Israeli intelligence, Mossad, the CIA and the White House later said the site was a nuclear facility with a military purpose, but Syria denied this.

If they do breach international law by attacking Israel, what are the options available to the international community?

If it were decided that Israel had acted outside legal boundaries, in theory, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) could act as a potential arbitrator between the country and Iran. It has done so before, for example between the US and the Nicaraguans during the Contras affair in 1984. The ICJ held that the US had violated international law by supporting the Contras in their rebellion against the Nicaraguan government and by mining Nicaragua’s harbours. But the US, despite later blocking enforcement of the judgement, had initially agreed to the court’s jurisdiction, and that is the key point. For the court to be binding, both parties need to consent, but historical precedent suggests this has not always been the case.