Statements that Israel has the ability to strike Iran's nuclear infrastructure and cause major damage are true. Such an attack would require the capability to reach distant targets, overcome aerial defense systems and destroy the targets.
The number of facilities that would need to be hit to deal a fatal blow to Iran's nuclear infrastructure is generally overestimated. The essential ingredient for building a nuclear bomb is uranium enriched to a level of more than 90%, meaning that the enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo must be taken care of. The reactor at Arak, designed to produce plutonium (another fissionable material suitable for building a nuclear bomb), is not yet active, but it is a worthy target, similar to the reactor that was destroyed in Iraq in 1981.
Israel's long arm is its air force, which has the ability to strike distant targets. According to foreign reports, the Israel Air Force has more than 400 fighter planes, a large number for any state. The IAF fleet includes the F-15I Raam, one of the world's most advanced planes, which can carry many precision weapons over long distances.
The IAF also reportedly has a number of aerial refueling tankers that give its fighter jets the option to extend their flight range to as far away as Iran. The IAF has held a number of exercises, which received media coverage, in which dozens of aircraft flew long distances, clearly displaying the IAF's ability to reach Iran.
The flight path to nuclear targets in Iran would, as in past long-distance IAF operations, be above Arab countries. But this time, it is possible that these countries would turn a blind eye or even cooperate with Israel, because the Sunni Arab world is very concerned about Iran attaining nuclear weapons. Moreover, the IAF has a terrific set of technological means that enable it to blind or paralyze air defense systems. Reported IAF operations in Syria and Sudan, which came to light only after the alleged strikes took place, may be an indication of such capabilities. Iran might have excellent air defense systems that could exact a price from the IAF, but it is unlikely that they could prevent the IAF from conducting a successful attack.
An important issue is the ability to destroy underground targets. The U.S. has provided Israel with bunker-buster bombs, and it is likely that Israel Military Industries is also capable of developing and producing similar weapons. An Israeli operation in Iran might also require a ground presence, mainly to ensure the destruction of the targets. The special forces units of the Israel Defense Forces are the answer for this need.
Unfortunately, it would at this point be difficult to achieve strategic surprise and it is a shame that an attack on Iran was not carried out several years ago. But despite Iran's awareness of the possibility of an Israeli strike, there is still perhaps room for tactical surprises.
Make no mistake: An Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear infrastructure would be a complicated military operation with many risks. Israeli ingenuity and determination could make such an operation a great success. Much of the world is waiting for Israel to remove the chestnuts from the fire.
Israel's decision to strike Iran or not is a historic gamble. History and common sense point toward an attack.
Professor Efraim Inbar is director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a political studies professor at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.