Can Bunker Busters Solve Israel’s Iran Dilemma?
JNS.org – Alarmed by what they believe to be diplomatic failures by the Obama administration in nuclear negotiations with Iran, leading scholars of a Washington, DC-based think tank have proposed to have the United States provide Israel with the largest “bunker buster” bombs in the U.S. arsenal to help restore the administration’s leverage in its negotiations.
In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on April 8, Michael Makovsky, chief executive officer of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and a former Pentagon official—along with retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the former chief of Air Force intelligence and senior advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy—recommended that the U.S. provide the Israel Defense Forces with the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bombs.
Designed to bore deep into the ground before detonating rather than exploding on contact with the ground, the MOP would give Israel the ability to disable underground Iranian nuclear facilities if it deems that course of action necessary, in case the P5+1 nuclear negotiations in Geneva fail, the authors say.
According to Makovsky and Deptula, the administration has erroneously broken with sound negotiating judgment by eliminating deterrents that could have leveraged Iran to pursue meaningful negotiations. The Obama administration has taken a firm stance against efforts in Congress to add—or threaten to add—greater sanctions on Iran if a deal falls through. The administration believes additional sanctions will lose Iranian trust and cooperation in the negotiating process.
Additionally, they wrote, the historical deterrent used to back diplomacy—the threat of military action—is no longer credible.
“President Obama has already taken one potential source of leverage off the table by promising to veto legislation that threatens tighter economic sanctions on Iran,” Makovsky and Deptula wrote. “This leaves military pressure as the only option. But after the Obama administration’s unenforced ‘red lines’ in Syria and Ukraine, Iran is understandably dismissive of the threat of U.S. military action. That leaves Israel.”
The idea is not unusual in U.S.-Israel relations. In 2012, Congress passed the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, which declared that the U.S. would ensure that Israel maintains its “qualitative military edge” over its regional threats. President Barack Obama signed the law and assured Israelis that “[we] will do what it takes to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge—because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
The U.S. has already provided Israel with smaller, 2,000- and 5,000-pound bunker buster bombs—largely ineffective against Iranian nuclear targets—and recently delivered a KC-135 Stratotanker airplane to give Israel mid-air refueling capabilities.
But GBU-57 weighs in at 30,000 pounds and the IDF does not have the capability to deliver such massive ordinance.
Only two planes in the U.S. can deliver it: the B-2 Spirit bomber—the highly advanced, stealth, backbone of modern U.S. bombers—and the ancient B-52 Stratofortress that, despite its age, is still very capable and has been operated by the U.S. for more than 50 years.
Makovsky and Deptula recommend that several decommissioned B-52H bombers be taken from the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona and provided with the bombs.
“There are more than a dozen of the relatively ‘newest’ B-52H bombers built in the early 1960s in storage,” the op-ed stated. “Some of these should be delivered to Israel. There’s no legal or policy impediments to their transfer; they would just have to be refurbished and retrofitted to carry the MOP.”
Makovsky told JNS.org that despite listing what he sees as failure in the administration’s Iran policy in the article, their proposed idea is intended to help the negotiations without violating any part of Geneva’s framework agreement.
“I think that there’s really no legitimate reason why anyone would oppose this,” Makovsky said. “I think it’s a prudent thing to do, and the only argument that some in the administration might say is, ‘Oh, it will undercut the negotiations with Iran,’ which is what they said about sanctions, but I don’t see that because this was already pledged two years ago in the Israel Security Enhancement Act.”
Though the act specified the delivery of the fuel tankers and other indirect military cooperation, it is not exclusive and Makovsky says that there’s no difference in delivering an airplane for mid-air refueling—giving Israeli jets the ability to make long distance bombing runs—to giving or selling the actual weapon and delivery system. Both extend Israeli military capabilities.
Since it does not directly involve Iran like additional sanctions or military threats by the U.S., Makovsky argues that negotiations would not be affected. But the idea does intend to send a clear message to Iranian leaders: The U.S. may not do anything if Iran backs away from the negotiating table or continues nuclear enrichment, but Israel will now have the capability to effectively destroy Iranian nuclear targets, he said.
Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, told JNS.org that he thinks Israel will be a credible threat to the Iranians.
“I think the Israelis view negotiations between the U.S. and the other P5+1 powers in Iran with a great deal of trepidation because they don’t see anything irrevocable happening to the Iranian nuclear program,” said Berman. “They see tactical concessions, but these are hard choices that are being deferred; they’re not being eliminated entirely.”
Berman said that the proposal covers the “fundamental problems” with Iranian diplomacy. In other words, the proposal purposefully avoids providing the administration reasons to shoot it down as it did with sanctions earlier this year. According to Berman, it also “keys up Israel as the bad cop to Geneva’s good cop.”
“I think that’s a very savvy way to indirectly rejoin the ideas of diplomacy. It’s certainly not anything that would torpedo the administration’s diplomatic efforts,” said Berman, “because after all, the idea here would be if the Geneva deal is a good deal—the deal that results from it—then there’s no need for this anyway.”
Makovsky and Deptula have begun working to get traction for their idea among policy makers, both within the administration and on Capitol Hill. Makovsky believes that support could be built in Congress to pressure the administration into action. He points to Congress playing an essential role in pressuring the administration to pass the first round of sanctions that is credited with bringing Iran to the negotiating table.
“This goes beyond just the debate on sanctions—which I think has disproportionally absorbed the debate,” Makovsky said. “This goes beyond that and adds another element of how to put more pressure on Iranians while also fulfilling the pledge to the Israelis.”
Berman agrees, saying that the move would also help the U.S. reassure Israelis that if the talks break down, they at least have an implicit understanding that “they [the Israelis] have to do what they have to do.” Also, according to Berman, pursuing legislation in Congress would in this case be the proper course of action.
“Congress has done much more than individual administrations consistently over the lifespan of the U.S.-Israel relationship to reinforce the bonds between Washington and Jerusalem,” said Berman. “So Congress is a good place to start in driving this discussion. Administrations come and go, but the pro-Israel sentiment in Congress has proven to be remarkably resilient.”