Timing a pre-emptive strike

In January 1988, I published a piece in the Sunday Observer entitled “Knocking out Kahuta” which gained some notoriety. Pakistan was, at that time, still short of crossing the nuclear weapons threshold and the “window of opportunity”, I argued, would remain open for only another six months or less. At the time of Operation Brasstacks in Spring 1987, Islamabad had succeeded in spreading disinformation, courtesy the infamous interview arranged for Kuldip Nayyar with Dr. A.Q. Khan, that Pakistan already possessed an atomic device. That piece was written with no confidence whatsoever that the Indian government would act pre-emptively to take out the uranium centrifuges at Kahuta.

After all, it had by then on three previous occasions permitted strike options, urged by Israel, to peter out, including one in 1982 related to me personally by the former Israeli Military Intelligence chief, Major General Aharon Yaariv, when I was in Israel in 1983 during the Lebanon war. While advocating prompt pre-emption, I had ended the article with a strong warning that if that opportunity lapsed, India should forever hold its peace with Pakistan because it would, to use the phrase currently employed by the Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak vis-a-vis Iran, enter the “zone of immunity”.

The Israeli government is, of course, nothing like its Indian counterpart — a bunch of perennially indecisive, finger-twiddling, risk-averse types. Israelis are, by nature and the fact of their country’s small margin of safety, inclined to nip a threat in the bud today than have it grow into an insurmountable problem tomorrow. No country keeps better tabs on its adversaries than Israel does on Iran. And Tel Aviv will order an attack — very likely combining Special Forces actions of sabotage followed by precision aerial bombardment — before Iran crosses the Israeli-designated redline, whether or not the United States concurs with such action.

However much Israel would like Washington to get on board, there’s a point beyond which it will not wait, notwithstanding the Obama administration’s belief, shared by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran is still some years away from an actual weapons capability, and that precipitate actions would immeasurably worsen the situation all round. Considering its own incessant bluster, Iran will feel compelled to respond with long range missile strikes, and terrorist acts and rocket attacks by Hezbollah from Syria and southern Lebanon — contingencies Israel is already preparing for with underway civil defence measures. The melee could quickly escalate into a drag out fight engulfing the entire region, with Tehran targeting other than Israel, Saudi-supported Sunni-ruled Shia-majority states, such as Bahrain, and the US Fifth Fleet based there, with its so-called Qods Special Forces unit.

But the tipping point in this argument is that there is a lot more at stake for Israel than there is for the United States on the other side of the globe.Except there’s a critical void in the Israeli capability that only the US government can fill, namely, a sufficiently powerful conventional weapon able to burrow deep under the earth before detonating, which is required to incapacitate the secret weapons facility at Fordow built inside the  mountains in northwestern Iran. The US has what Israel does not — a strategic bomber deliverable 30,000-pound “Massive Ordnance Penetrator” (MOP) able to slice some 200 feet into the earth before exploding.A newspaper report about the MOP, sourced to American intelligence, also talks about the vulnerability of the Fordow complex to multiple attacks on tunnel entrances, blast-proof doors, power and water systems, etc., as a means of collapsing the tunnels and disrupting the centrifuges. Such press reports along with President Barack Obama’s interview to the Atlantic monthly, are meant to warn Tehran and communicate the resolve to Tel Aviv that Washington will ensure Iran never obtains nuclear weapons. The US government plainly hopes this will persuade Israel against acting pre-emptively.

Stories of Iranian vulnerability may be psychological warfare tactics and American bluff. But David Ignatius, the Washington Post reporter considered close to US intelligence agencies, in a reply to his own question — “When is a bluff not a bluff?”, lays much store by certain assertions by Obama in the interview, like “I’m not saying this is something we’d like to solve. I’m saying this is something we have to solve.” It is unlikely Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have felt reassured. Recall that, notwithstanding its strong non-proliferation rhetoric and public stance, the US was complicit in Pakistan’s nuclear weaponisation facilitated by China’s direct transfer of nuclear weapons material, technologies and expertise in the late 1970s, by providing it continuous political cover and protection against Non-Proliferation Treaty sanctions. During that period the US, it turned out, needed Zia ul-Haq regime’s help in its campaign to undermine the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan.

It was only after the Soviet withdrawal in 1988 that President George Bush (senior) suddenly discovered Pakistan had proliferated and he could no longer certify its non-nuclear weapon status as mandated by the Pressler Amendment to the US Foreign Aid Act, whence US assistance was terminated. At the time Israeli Prime Minister  Menachem Begin, ordered the attack in June 1981 on the Iraqi Osirak reactor in its pre-commissioning phase, there were officials within the Reagan Administration counselling restraint. Begin had justified the operation, saying “We chose this moment…because later may be too late.” Unlike India, which is complacent about national security, has no sense of urgency, and is always ready to believe anyone and anything just to avoid a fight — as evidence: the country’s tail-between-its-legs attitude with China, Tel Aviv is unlikely to pay much heed to, or be swayed by, what America wants, if it thinks Iran is on the point of tripping the wire and gaining nuclear immunity. Like all great powers, the United States is in the business of furthering its own national interest. Though they might be close friends of America, Israel and India, have to look out for themselves, something Tel Aviv understands better than Delhi.

[Published in the New Indian Express on March 9, 2012,  at


About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Great Power imperatives, India's Pakistan Policy, Indian Air Force, indian policy -- Israel, Iran and West Asia, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Special Forces, Strategic Relations with the US & West. Bookmark the permalink.

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