To Prevent War With Iran, Give Israel Fuel Tankers

Having more of the aircraft would give Jerusalem the peace of mind to avoid prematurely attacking its foe.
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A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing prepares to fuel Royal Danish Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon aircraft on February 1, 2012. (Reuters)

Western diplomats departed Almaty, Kazakhstan recently declaring that yet another round of negotiations with Iran over ending its nuclear program had failed. But the problem for the United States isn't just preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons -- it's also preventing Israel from attacking prematurely. And although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly accepted American timelines, the dispute between Israel and the United States will erupt again. And no amount of phone calls or summits can resolve it.

That's because the clash between the two countries isn't just about intentions--both have pledged to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, if necessary through force. Instead, it's about military capability. Israel, with its limited arsenal, must attack before Iran produces enough nuclear material to build a bomb. Because Israeli military capabilities would be significantly stretched in a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, every strike option carries a risk that Israel will only partially destroy its targets. To succeed, it may need to attempt a follow-up attack or even a series of them. All of this requires time, something Israel is running out of.

If Israel decides to strike Iran, its lack of tankers will be a significant handicap.

Meanwhile, the United States, with weapons such as the long-range B-2 stealth bomber and massive bunker-busting bombs, can afford to wait. Despite the pleasantries of President Obama's recent visit to Israel, this discrepancy reappeared in the Jerusalem press conference between Obama and Netanyahu, with Netanyahu reiterating the need to strike Iran before it passes the so-called zone of immunity -- the point at which an attack would no longer derail the nuclear program. This tension has both exposed Israel's limitations and undermined U.S. credibility, weakening diplomacy and emboldening Iran. All of this, ironically, increases the odds for war. The only way to solve the problem is to level the playing field: the United States should give Israel air refueling tankers, increasing its odds of destroying Iran's nuclear program in the event of an attack and thereby giving it more time to wait.

Refueling tankers are one of the most important advantages the United States has over Israel if it came to an attack on Iran. Any Israeli operation against Iran would severely strain its air force. Over 1,000 nautical miles separate Israel from its furthest targets in Iran, and Israeli jets would need to refuel approximately halfway. Tankers would play a critical role in any such attack.

The problem is that Israel doesn't have enough of them. It has roughly 10 tankers in its fleet, all of which it would need to deploy in a strike on Iran--presenting the Israelis with a major operational vulnerability. The loss of one or two tankers could threaten the entire mission. If Israel decides to strike Iran, its lack of tankers will be a significant handicap.

All of this means that Israel must decide whether to attack much earlier than the United States. The riskier the operation is for Israel, the less time it has to wait, as it will seek a time buffer in case more strikes are needed or the operation fails entirely. And with Iran reportedly expanding its nuclear production sites, Israel will likely need more tankers to hit additional targets. Israel could rely on Washington to act at the last moment, and this is what American officials are hoping for. But Israelis recognize that the Iranian nuclear program poses a lesser danger to the United States -- making them less likely to rely on American goodwill.

This raises the second problem with American efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear program: credibility. Despite Obama's vows to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, all signs indicate Iran has yet to take them seriously. And for good reason. War weary and budget strapped, the United States would face the prospect of entering its third major Middle Eastern war in the last decade -- one that could severely damage the already-weakened global economy. That daunting scenario likely explains why administration officials have not only questioned the odds of a successful Israeli strike but expressed doubts about the impact of a U.S. attack as well. But the best chance for Iran to relinquish its nuclear program is if it truly fears the use of force.

The United States thus finds itself in a bind: to convince the Iranians to abandon their nuclear program, it must bolster the credibility of its threat to attack. Given the uncertainties about its intentions, the question is whether it can do so without actually resorting to force. But such is not the case for Israel: Tehran hardly doubts Jerusalem's seriousness. This past October, the New York Times reported that in 2007 and 2008, the Iranian military so feared an Israeli strike that it accidentally fired on civilian airliners and even one of its own military aircraft. And just recently, the Wall Street Journal discovered that Iran has slowed its nuclear program to remain within Israel's red line until its elections in June. The Iranians merely doubt Israel's ability to demolish its nuclear facilities, and therefore the credibility of Israel's threats to do so.

By giving Israel refueling tankers, the United States can escape its bind. Jerusalem would be better equipped to ferry its air force to Iran and remain airborne long enough to attack an increasing number of targets. This would give Israel a greater margin of error, allowing it to wait longer before striking and placing it more fully on Washington's timeline. Meanwhile, Tehran would take the potential consequences of an Israeli assault more seriously, so transferring the tankers would thus boost U.S. credibility. Empowering Israel, the country most likely to use force, would demonstrate that the United States is willing to risk war to stop Iran's nuclear program. With Israel in possession of sufficient air tankers, the Iranian regime would have the strongest incentive yet to end its nuclear drive.

The hope, of course, is that neither the United States nor Israel will need to resort to force. Diplomatic niceties can calm the dispute between Israel and the United States over Iran temporarily, but only increasing Israel's capabilities can buy real time and credibility. By realigning Washington and Jerusalem, it offers the surest means of avoiding preemptive war.

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Presented by

Andrew Burt and Jordan Chandler Hirsch

Andrew Burt, a former journalist and current J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, is writing a book on political extremism. Jordan Chandler Hirsch, also a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, is a former staff editor at Foreign Affairs. Follow them on Twitter at @andburt and @jordanchirsch.

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