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.