In considering how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is instructive first to see Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie masterpiece “Dr. Strangelove — Or How I Learned to Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
The film and its characters brilliantly satirized the thinkability of thermonuclear war: Dr. Strangelove the bizarre wheelchair-bound and crippled blond ex-Nazi pseudo academic; Merkin Muffley the egg-headed president and Wing Cmdr. Lionel Mandrake (all played by British comedian Peter Sellers); Gen. Buck Turgidson, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff constantly on the phone with his mistress; the deranged Strategic Air Command Gen. Jack D. Ripper; and Major “King” Kong who in a scene late in the film drops from his B-52 astride a hydrogen bomb like a cowboy rider at a rodeo.
How does doomsday arrive? General Ripper snaps and orders a flight of B-52 bombers to attack Russia. In the Pentagon War Room, the president and his advisers, along with the Soviet ambassador and a drunken Soviet premier on the hotline, frantically try to recall the raid and then shoot down the remaining American bombers.
As the denouement approaches, the Russians warn the president that they have invented a Doomsday Machine that will destroy the planet if a nuclear weapon explodes on Russian territory. As Major Kong and his bomb hurtle earthward, one can see Muffley/Sellers dead-panning that it was a bit late to learn of this rather important information.
With Iran’s nuclear capability in Israel’s gun sights, thinking unthinkable and even Strangelovian thoughts about potential attacks don’t require a Peter Sellers’ movie. For the near term and perhaps longer, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems to have been persuaded or realizes that a combination of harsher sanctions on and negotiations with Iran must be given time to work. But suppose Israel’s leaders conclude that Iran must be prevented from fielding nuclear weapons at all costs.
Senior U.S. military officers agree that, at best, Israel can only delay and not prevent Iran from producing a bomb.
Israel lacks the aerial tankers and the load capacity of its F-15 and F-16 jets to impose more than temporary damage. Given geography and logistics, an Israeli pre-emptive strike would most likely come in from the west overflying Iraq with its minimal air defenses and assumes that the United States won’t engage.
The result of an Israel attack will almost certainly convince Iran to build nuclear weapons as well retaliate in a variety of “asymmetric” means from oil blockades, the use of terror to unleashing Hezbollah against Israel.
Two questions, however, haven’t been part of this public discourse. First, would the Israelis attack from an unexpected direction, meaning the north? Second, given the need for deep-penetrator weapons the Israelis don’t have or may be too heavy for its aircraft to carry long range, would nuclear weapons be considered? After all, if the Iranian danger were deemed existential to Israel, why would any constraints apply to using nuclear weapons despite the huge attendant and unpredictable risks?
Given Israel’s penchant for often bold and creative military thinking, the most direct and predictable line of attack by overflying Iraq may not be the preferred choice provided basing and refueling options with countries close to or bordering Iran have been granted.
That means attacking Iran from the north and flying over the Caspian Sea. Severe and even overwhelming problems remain. Any country that tolerates or doesn’t prevent Israel from violating its airspace could be subject to Iran’s retaliation or could turn against Israel.
Considering nuclear weapons is more interesting. It isn’t known here if Israel has or can get bunker-busting weapons with sufficient explosive and penetrating power to destroy or greatly damage Iran’s underground nuclear sites. A nuclear penetrator or a sufficiently large enough nuclear surface burst that leaves a crater hundreds of feet deep would be the most certain means of achieving maximum damage.
The dangers, repercussions and blowback would be so enormous that discussion of nuclear weapons is unthinkable. Yet, Israel might conclude it had no other option than to use nuclear weapons.
Returning to Strangelove, does Iran already have an equivalent Doomsday Machine or retaliatory instrument outside the oil weapon?
The answer is yes. Imagine one or more 300,000- or 400,000-ton supertankers laden with 50,000 or 100,000 tons of explosive material from liquid natural gas to ammonium phosphate crashing at 30 knots into the port of Haifa or close to Tel Aviv. One kiloton equates to 1,000 tons of conventional explosive. These ships could carry the explosive equivalent of a 50KT or 100KT nuclear weapon.
And, after an Israeli attack, suppose there were an Iranian version of Major Kong or General Ripper at the helm of these supertankers. Now that would be some movie!
Harlan Ullman is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This article was syndicated by UPI.