JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Asked about the profusion of foreign reports that their armed forces could soon attack Iran, Israeli officials tend to smile and shrug enigmatically, seemingly content to let such guesswork simmer.
The diplomatic dumbshow, which preserves military secrecy while keeping war-wary world powers negotiating for a halt to Tehran’s nuclear programme, also conceals genuine bemusement in Israel at some of the assumptions abroad about its capabilities.
“This is speculation which is not entirely connected to reality,” Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, a former top Israeli general, said on Sunday when grilled over predictions by U.S. media that Israel would assault its foe with drones, ballistic missiles, submarines and covert commandos, as well as warplanes.
“It’s part of the problem, an attempt to turn the discussion into one of ‘Iran versus Israel’ instead of ‘Iran versus the West, the United States, Europe’ and so on,” he told Army Radio.
Iran denies suspicions its nuclear energy programme aims to yield bombs but its record of hiding sensitive work from U.N. inspectors and refusal to negotiate have led to a stand-off with world powers and raised talk of last-ditch military action.
Israel, which sees Iran’s nuclear drive as a mortal threat, sent F-16 jets to destroy Iraq’s atomic reactor in 1981 and launched a similar sneak sortie against Syria in 2007.
But Iran, more distant and with its numerous, fortified facilities and vigilance for long-threatened raids, would pose a potentially insuperable challenge for an Israeli air force that lacks heavy bombers.
That has led some reports to assert that the Israelis have undisclosed capabilities that would close the tactical gap -- despite the doubts of independent defence experts.
In a front-page story on January 25 that prophesied war this year, the New York Times magazine spoke of Israel having “unmanned aircraft capable of carrying bombs to those targets (in Iran) and remaining airborne for up to 48 hours.”
Another major U.S. news outlet said Israel’s advanced drones could be used for the aerial refueling of fighter-bombers.
Both claims were ridiculed by Robert Hewson, editor of Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons, as “science fiction.” While Israel is widely believed to have used drones to fire on guerrillas in Gaza and Lebanon, those targets have been close, exposed and bereft of means to shoot down the slow, propeller-driven planes.
“Nobody has the ability to conduct any kind of strategic offensive warfare with drones -- not the U.S., not Israel, not anybody,” Hewson said. “Such a task requires a level of technology and a force of UAVs (unarmed aerial vehicles) that does not exist and will not exist for decades.”
As for drones being used to refuel aircraft for the 1,500 km - 2,000 km (900 - 1,250 miles) journey to Iran, Hewson said: “Not a chance. Not even in theory. A total impossibility.”
Israel does, however, have a small number of jet-powered refueling planes.
Another focus of foreign attention has been Israel’s three German-supplied Dolphin submarines.
Citing unnamed intelligence sources, the Atlantic magazine in late 2010 said two of the subs were “currently positioned in the Persian Gulf” for a potential nuclear strike on Iran. That report also said a war was likely in 2011.
The Dolphins are small, diesel-powered, designed for coastal patrols and equipped with 10 torpedo tubes - a wholly different vessel to the behemoth nuclear submarines deployed by global superpowers.
Israel neither confirms nor denies widespread assumptions it has nuclear weapons. If they are on the Dolphins, experts agree, it would be in order to allow Israel to deter enemies by signaling that it could retaliate for any catastrophic attack.
But that logic would require the submarines to be able to launch the missiles at short notice, from the Mediterranean Sea where they are based. That would obviate the need to sail to the Gulf, which would take many days via Egypt’s Suez Canal and as long as a month if the Dolphins circumnavigated Africa.
“The United States is alone, perhaps in the world, in having the luxury of apportioning conventional and nuclear missions in its submarine fleet,” said James Russell, a former Pentagon aide now with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
“The Israelis, it strikes me, don’t have that luxury.”
His point was that the Dolphins are too limited in range and payload to be able to provide a variety of services -- whether conventional strikes or the latent nuclear “second strike.”
U.S. television network NBC said last week Israel could use “long-range rockets” against Iran, an apparent allusion to its reputed intermediate-range ballistic missiles known as Jerichos.
Sticking to its policy of strategic ambiguity, the Israelis have never acknowledged having these weapons, stoking public jitters when test launches have been carried out from a major air base outside Tel Aviv -- most recently in November.
Such high visibility in a small country with a free press may have put paid to Jerichos taking part in a surprise attack.
“Even if we have these things, they would take 10 to 12 minutes to reach Iran,” said one Israeli official on condition of anonymity. “That’s plenty of time for the Iranians to listen in to our media reports about the launches.”
Sam Gardiner, a retired U.S. air force colonel who runs wargames for various Washington agencies, posited that Israel would use combinations of its known and rumored military assets for an attack. But he doubted they could deliver lasting damage.
“The number of targets that would have to be hit and the degree to which the targets are now hardened creates an overwhelming targeting problem for Israel,” he said.
Gardiner has studied past far-reaching operations from Israel, from its air strikes in Iraq and Syria to its 1976 commando rescue of airliner hostages in Uganda to its 1985 bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunis. But those, he said, had limited value as precedents when it came to formidable Iran:
“It seems like the more coverage issues like the Iranian nuclear programme get, the more the coverage tends toward fantasy.”
The United States says it sees military force as a last resort but wants to exhaust diplomatic pressure on Iran. Some Israelis worry about their country’s core ties with Washington, and its own credibility.
“I think we have reached a surfeit point, a climax, and it would best to lower the tone,” former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told Israel Radio, referring to the media reports and knock-on debates about potential war against Iran.
Editing by Mark Heinrich