Is Israel on Deadline? or Who will Control Iraqi Airspace in 2012?

by Bruce Webb

A little over a year ago I put up the following map from Cordesman and Toukan’s Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Development Facilities

A year later and this issue is back in the headlines and specifically in association with the publication by the uber-Likudnik Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in the Atlantic tomorrow called The Point of No Return which essentially argues that the U.S. should bomb Iran and start a third mid-East war basically to save Israel the trouble of doing it itself. So maybe it is time to revisit Cordesman-Toukan in light of the current withdrawal schedule from Iraq.

In the article Cordesman and Toukan provide a comprehensive breakdown of both Israeli and Iranian missile capabilities and of the respective capabilities of Israel to launch an air attack and Iran to defend against one. Which makes it a useful read all on its own. But I want to highlight the above map that shows the three possible attack routes given the limitations of Israeli air ranges. Some things of note. In each case Israel would need in-air refueling both on the way in and on the way out, meaning that they would have to stage their KC-135’s over the strike routes for some period of time, and all three of the strike routes require transiting Iraqi air space as well as either Saudi, Syrian or Turkish skies. Leaving for comments the question of whether either Turkey (given the recent Gaza embargo sea clash) or Saudi Arabia would look the other way and not even challenge the refueling effort, will the U.S. retain enough air assets in Iraq after mid-2011 to support an air-refueling effort on behalf of Israel or to provide safe havens for returning Israeli fighter bombers that might sustain damage?

The United States has formally controlled at least Northern and Southern Iraqi airspace since the first Gulf War via the No-Fly Zones. I surmise, though don’t know for sure, that that control will lapse upon U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, or that if there is a residual U.S. air presence that it will at least on paper be subject to Iraqi government approval. Which leads to the question in the title of the post, the whole premise of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran relies on at least tacit assistance by the U.S. and either Saudi Arabia or Turkey and given the refueling constraints outlined by Cordesman and Toukan almost certainly active assistance at least on the way out, because once those bombs start dropping nobody is going to be able to pretend nothing is going on.

So is time running out for Israel? Is that why we are getting the big push by Goldberg and others? Because they know that any such attack without full US control of Iraqi air space falls from the realm of improbable to impossible?