Israel’s successful Sudan air strike delivered a pointed message to Iran

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Israel’s precision air strike on Oct. 24, against the Yarmouk weapons production facility in the suburbs of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, was — apart from destroying a facility which provided rockets and missiles to Hamas to use against Israel — clearly intended to send a direct message to the Iranian political leadership that Israel could also successfully strike at nuclear weapons production facilities in Iran.

What is less clear is what the Israeli Government expected Iran to do in reaction to the attack, other than to see evidence of Israeli resolve. All indications from senior-level sources in Iran are that the Iranian clerical Government has gone too far along the path to acquire an indigenous nuclear weapons production capability to stop or reverse that now.

Flames engulf the Yarmouk munitions factory on Oct. 24. /Reuters

Moreover, despite the Khartoum example, it is by no means clear that Iran’s deeply protected nuclear sites would be vulnerable to a normal air strike, although damage to some infrastructure could delay an Iranian production capability. As well, Israel could attempt to damage the Iranian strategic command and control system and some of the mobile launch capabilities for long-range Shihab 3C/D ballistic missiles of the type designed to carry nuclear warheads. These facilities, too, however, are extremely well protected.

According to The Sunday Times, of London, on October 28, 2012, the Israeli raid on Yarmouk involved eight Israel Air Force (IAF) Boeing F-15I heavy combat aircraft, four of them in a strike role, and four equipped each with two one-ton bombs. According to The Sunday Times, “Preparations for the attack in Sudan began more than two years ago after Mossad agents suffocated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the top weapons buyer for the Palestinian group, Hamas, in his hotel in Dubai.”

“Before they left Mabhouh’s room they removed a number of documents from his briefcase.”

“One of them, according to intelligence sources, was a copy of a defense agreement signed in 2008 by Teheran and Khartoum. It committed Iran to build weapons in Sudan under full Iranian command.”

“The Israelis discovered later that a large contingent of Iranian technicians had been sent to the Yarmouk factory, where Human Rights Watch had reported in 1998 that chemical weapons were being stored. Under Revolutionary Guard supervision, the Iranians were building advanced Shihab ballistic missiles and rockets at a plant in the factory compound.”

The throw-away reference to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) forces helping to build Shihab (“Meteor”) ballistic missiles was significant; these are not battlefield missiles, but are of a family of ballistic systems, with the shortest-range of the family (the Shihab-1) still affording a range of 350+km. Its presence in the hands of Hamas would be significant for Israel, given that the range would cover most of Israel from launches within the Gaza strip. As a result, if, indeed, the Yarmouk factory was making Shihabs, then it was a significant target for Israel, regardless of the symbolism of the strike as a warning for Iran on its nuclear weapons program.

Israel is already aware that Iran has, since 1992, had a number of nuclear warheads — possibly as many as 10 to 15 by now — and that it has a national command system to manage a ballistic missile conflict (including launch through warning and to second strike). The acquisition of nuclear weapons production capability, however, substantially upgrades Iran as a strategic power, despite the fact that neither Iran nor Israel can postulate strategies for nuclear weapons use which would be definitively “war winning”.

Ironically, Israel finds common cause with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in seeking to reduce the growth of Iran as a regional hegemon, but is opposed to Saudi Arabia’s and Qatar’s moves to overthrow the Syrian Government of Iranian-ally Bashar Assad, because of the fear that a Sunni Islamist leadership in Damascus would be more dangerous for Israel than a pro-Iranian ‘Alawite/Shi’a.

Moreover, the common cause which Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have against Syria reinforces Israel’s traditional preference — historically validated over three millennia — for a strategic relationship between Israel and Iran.

Within this framework, Israel is also seeing the Red Sea — one of the critical avenues for Israeli trade and strategic power projection — becoming unstable. The election of Mohammed Morsi as Egyptian President encouraged an upsurge of radical Islamist fervor in Somalia, in particular, but also in Somaliland, and among Muslims in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. In Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Iran is also fighting through proxies for dominance over the Sunni jihadist groups. To a significant extent, Iran, Egypt, and Israel see the Red Sea as a critical battleground, making the Israeli strike against Sudan on Oct. 24, significant from that perspective, rather than merely seen through the prism of a “warning” to Iran over its nuclear weapons program.

Israel now must be attempting to position itself to bolster relations with Ethiopia’s new Government, as well as to ensure that the transition beyond President Isayas Afewerke in Eritrea does not see the littoral Red Sea state collapse, or become radicalized around its Muslim population (given that the country is now nominally under Christian control). Israel’s ability to sustain nuclear deterrence against Iran depends on its submarine transit of the Red Sea.