With no resolution in sight to the anxiety over Iran's nuclear program, Israel is keeping the option of military action open. The problem, say various experts, is that the models of the past won't work.
Israel has successfully destroyed what it considered to be hostile nuclear facilities before. On June 7, 1981, an Israeli warplane destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq, and on September 6, 2007, the Israeli air force carried out a similar mission in northern Syria.
But that was then, and this is now. Experts say Israel's chances for a successful operation of this kind against Iran are slim.
"There's a great big difference between the number of nuclear weapons sites and nuclear material processing plants in Iran versus the single above-ground nuclear reactor in Syria," David Deptula - former US Air Force Chief of Staff for Intelligence - told DW. "A military campaign would involve a very complex set of actions. Most of the public out there doesn't understand that an air campaign just does not involve flying from point A to point B, dropping the bomb and coming home."
One main problem is distance. Even if Israel chose the most direct route to Iran through Jordanian and Iraqi airspace, accepting the diplomatic consequences that would follow, the seven nuclear facilities that would be likely targets are still 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away.
That means that the eight Israeli refuelling planes that would support the 125 fighter jets thought needed for such an operation would themselves have to land for re-tanking.
Moreover, Iran's air defenses may be outmoded, but they still could pose a challenge for any Israeli mission.
"I think the issue that is the most challenging is simply the range which means that they won't have a very long period over target in Iran," Martin Chalmers - an expert at the military think-tank Royal United Services Institute in London - told DW. "There is a lot of complexity in that, and the limited size of the Israeli air force means that margins for error will not be that great."
Others say the real problems lie elsewhere.
"I think the Israeli air force has the capabilities, the refuelling capacities for example, to bring sufficient numbers of aircraft to the targets," Shlomo Brom, a military expert at the Institute for National Security at Tel Aviv University, told DW. "That's not my concern. What I don't know is whether when they reach the targets they can cause enough damage."
That's because Iran's two uranium-enrichment plants are very well-defended. The facility at Natanz is located underground, as is the one at Fordo. It was built inside a mountain, some 70 meters below the earth's surface.
Not even the most powerful Israeli bomb, the GBU-28, is capable of penetrating that far underground.
American intervention unlikely
While the United States has urged Israel to show restraint toward Iran, US President Barack Obama has emphasized that he is keeping all options open vis-à-vis Tehran. American aircraft carriers render the distance issue moot, and US bunker-buster bombs are effective even through 65 meters of solid concrete.
Yet, ironically, experts think that America's huge military might could be a factor against Washington deciding to launch a preemptive strike against Iran since it would inevitably lead to a wider conflict.
"The Americans are more likely to go for Iranian air defenses but also for those Iranian capabilities that might be used in retaliation, so they may be tempted to take out some of the Iranian naval facilities," Chalmers said. "So it is likely that an American attack would be much larger in scale and there would be a lot more casualties, including civilian casualties. It would be harder [for Iran] to then mount a more limited retaliation."
Having only withdrawn US soldiers from Iraq in 2010, Obama is unlikely to involve American forces in another major Middle East conflict so soon thereafter.
America and allies could offer more support for Sunni groups in Iran
Some experts question the value of any preemptive strike at all, saying it would only set back, but not stop Iran's nuclear activity.
"All you are doing in this case is delaying the problem," Deptula said. "You are not getting at the underlying reason that is creating the problem which is current Iranian regime."
Instead, some suggest that the better option for Washington would be to support and assist Iranian rebel groups in toppling the current Iranian government - along the lines of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001 or the anti-Gadhafi forces in Libya last year.
"Every situation is different but there are significant elements that oppose internally in Iran as there are some significant elements that exist outside Iran that oppose the current regime," Deptula said. "The obvious group is the MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq), which is an opposition group that exists in Iraq of about 3,400 people."
The MEK are a paramilitary group unhappy with the Shiite dominated regime in Tehran. The Iraqi government, now also predominately Shiite, wants them out of Iraq. The US still officially lists them as a terrorist organization.
"(The MEK) need to be delisted or removed from that list, and they could provide a source of Iranians who would support removing the current regime," Deptula said.
Could such a group really be an alternative to the problematic course of a preemptive strike? It sounds unlikely, but the idea cannot be completely discounted.
"No one is going to speak about those kinds of specifics in public, but it is that kind of a model that is a possibility," Deptula said.
Author: Dennis Stute/jc
Editor: Rob Mudge