Recently Richard Silverstein, a prominent US blogger on middle-eastern politics, "leaked" an extraordinary document on his website. It appears to outline a plan for a massive, carefully co-ordinated attack on Iran by the Israeli military, intended to severely damage the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme.
Naturally, this has caused quite a storm in certain circles, with Silverstein being accused by some of falling for a deliberate intelligence con, while others have taken a much more credulous view. The story got picked up by the BBC here and was uneasily digested in the Israeli and American press.
Silverstein claims the material came from a very well-placed source. In the article in which he revealed the alleged leak, "Bibi's secret war plan", he explains:
"The document was passed to me by a high-level Israeli source who received it from an IDF [Israeli Defence Force] officer. My source, in fact, wrote to me that normally he would not leak this sort of document, but:
"These are not normal times. I'm afraid Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu] and [Defence Secretary Ehud] Barak are dead serious." "
Silverstein informed me that he had carefully vetted the documents with at least two well-respected experts in handling intelligence material before he exposed the alleged leak.
Citing the "prior track record" of the (anonymous) source he obtained it from and "the level of specificity offered in the document", Silverstein confidently asserted in his blog piece that the material is authentic. It "references cities by name and the facilities they contain. It names new weapons systems including one Israel supposedly hasn't even shared with the U.S", he wrote. The Israeli government has not yet made any denials about its alleged provenance.
If you haven't had a look yet (its been out for a little over a week) the doc makes for grim reading, especially if one assumes its authenticity. There's no mention of the consequences of a strike in terms of Israeli or Iranian civilians, nor the spectre of retaliation or possible regional war.
Rather, it appears to assume that a "shock and awe"-type assault would paralyse the enemy sufficiently for Israel to achieve her goal of neutralising the Iranian nuclear "threat", at least temporarily, with minimal loss of Israeli military life.
Silverstein quotes from the document:
"The Israeli attack will open with a co-ordinated strike, including an unprecedented cyber-attack which will totally paralyze the Iranian regime and its ability to know what is happening within its borders...The electrical grid throughout Iran will be paralyzed."
This would be followed closely by a "barrage of tens of ballistic missiles" launched from within Israel in addition to others fired from "Israeli submarines in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf. " Another "barrage" of "hundreds of cruise missiles" would "pound command and control systems, research and development facilities, and the residences of senior personnel in the nuclear and missile development apparatus" according to the text. Israel will make use of its in-depth knowledge of the identity of Iran's nuclear experts to "completely decapitate Iran's professional and command ranks in these fields." (I.e. kill them all from the air, presumably.)
The final paragraph describes a follow-up attack launched by "war planes... equipped with electronic warfare gear" that will render them "invisible" to their enemy's detection systems. These planes, according to the plan, would then target "ballistic missile silos, storage tanks for chemical components of rocket fuel, industrial facilities for producing missile control systems, centrifuge production plants and more." Such an assault in its totality would amount to a comprehensive attack on the Iranian nuclear programme designed to destroy its human and technological assets, in addition to key infrastructure.
So will Israel actually attack Iran in some sort of sophisticated firestorm in the near future - and is the Silverstein document worth believing?
Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Defence Secretary, Ehud Barak, have both made explicit mention that they see some form of preventative assault as a serious option. Going by public statements, Netanyahu apparently remains convinced that the Iranians want to build a bomb, and that this poses an existential threat to the Jewish state, as opposed to being merely a deterrent. On occasion, he has referenced The Holocaust in relation to the present crisis in order to stress how seriously he perceives the Iranian threat.
However, some analysts have proffered the suggestion that Netanyahu is merely bluffing in order to force Israel's allies to support harsher diplomatic measures against Iran and try to scare the Islamic Republic into veering away from developing nuclear capability. The US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, inferred earlier in the year that Iran has not made up its mind about whether or it will produce a bomb, rather that it is aiming for nuclear "capability". Thus, it has been argued, Silverstein could be being "used" for the purposes of an intentional campaign designed to put pressure on allies and enemies alike. It is interesting to note that, by coincidence or synchronicity, the well-known US pundit Charles Krauthammer recently argued in the Washington Post for the US to avoid a war with Iran by "making it credible" that it would attack her.
Whether Silverstein has been manipulated - for whatever purpose - is, at the end of the day, a matter of speculation. It is, however, worth noting the well-established rumour that leading figures within the Israeli cabinet, military and intelligence services are opposed to an attack on Iran, chiefly because of the wildly unpredictable consequences it might precipitate. It is believed that President Obama is likewise against a "premature" attack by Israel, and any unilateral action could seriously antagonise Washington.
It is also worth noting that, as Panetta has acknowledged, if a strike were to take place, it might only delay Iran's programme for a few years- merely postponing the problem and violently provoking the Iranian regime, along with much of the Muslim world. As Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in The Atlantic recently "an Israeli attack would inadvertently create conditions for an acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program", if not handled very carefully indeed.
Thus, the case for an assault could only be made on the basis that it would be "worth it" - ie that it would do maximum damage to Iran's capacity to continue to develop its nuclear programme- perhaps in the manner outlined in Silverstein's claimed leak. The hope would be that Iran's ability to build a bomb would be set back so far as to nullify the possibility of a weapon for as long as possible. It's plausible that, as Silverstein wrote in his blog, that the document he cites represents a kind of pro-strike "sales pitch" by Bibi to unconvinced members of Israel's security elite.
But is the material genuine? While Silverstein- who has leaked sensitive Israeli stuff before - remains convinced, others are thoroughly sceptical. A prominent Jewish-American blogger on Israeli politics (who didn't want his identity revealed for the sake of avoiding a spat) was scathing about Silverstein's claimed leak. "The document was an obvious fake, with invisible planes straight out of a Wonder Woman comic, and mysterious Israeli capabilities that the US is completely unaware of, which is just fiction, and anyone familiar with the conflict knows that" he said.
Others have taken it more seriously. Writing in Forbes recently, IT security expert Richard Stiennon expressed concern about the "collateral damage" that could result from an Israeli attack à la the Silverstein paper, stating that an assault undertaken in such a way would amount to launching "all out war" on Iran. He predicted "a looming threat for IT and communication systems everywhere" as a result of the advanced cyber-attack presented in the Silverstein piece. If an Israeli cyber-assault takes place and, even partially, buggers up the world's IT systems, it would surely only damage Israel's international reputation- for ends that are uncertain.
Regardless of whether the "leak" really was a leak, the big issue that matters to the world is the possibility of a fresh, disastrous war in the middle-east. As the civil war in Syria continues to appall and perplex the international community, an Israeli strike on Iran could produce an even more diabolical situation.
Returning to Jeffrey Goldberg, he made a pretty convincing case about the folly of a strike on Iran in 2010. Most of the points he made then are still 100% relevant. In his opinion, an offensive would likely result in "lethal reprisals...a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity". Indeed, as he argued more recently, by gambling on an attack "Israel would be trading a theoretical war later for an actual war now", one that would be very likely protracted and totally unpredictable in its outcomes. And unless Israel is utterly ruthless and successful in any strike, such an action would merely buy a handful of years before Iran reaches nuclear capability.
If Israel attacks, one cannot be in doubt that Iran will try to make her pay. Innocent people will almost certainly die as a result, and probably in large numbers. Senior political figures in Israel who are pro-strike seem to be in denial about the human consequences of a new war. Not that long ago, Ehud Barak made the roseate prediction that no more than a few hundred Israelis would die in any retaliatory move by Iran, even if their ally in Lebanon, the redoubtable Hezbollah, rain hell down on the north.
While it is unlikely that anyone bar Silverstein's source and perhaps a few insiders could state with any authority whether or not his alleged leak is a sure thing or a red herring - and in the long run, it doesn't matter.
What really matters is the prospect of a war with Iran (a struggle, by the way, that could very possibly involve Britain depending on how things develop). Silverstein's uncertain scoop and the attention it has drawn merely represent the latest reminder of a real chance of further misery in the middle-east sometime soon. As if matters weren't bad enough already.
That being said, whenever the spectre of this long-predicted conflict is invoked, one is also reminded that nothing has happened yet. Despite the gridlock in diplomacy, this war can still be stopped before it starts- if the right people care enough, that is.