Message with a bang: what Israel told US with Sudan hit
Was Israeli attack on Khartoum missile plant a 'dry run' for Iran – or a memo to the next US President?
THE ISRAELI air strike on a weapons compound on the outskirts of Khartoum last week was sure to raise the tension between Israel and Iran. Some reports from the region suggest it may have been a "dry run" for an attack by the Israeli air force within months on nuclear facilities inside Iran itself.
But it now seems that if anything the strike last week was more complicated. It was timed to send several messages, not just to Iran, but also to the United States in the run-up to the presidential election.
The attack on the missile factory on the southwestern edges of the Sudanese capital was carried out by a flight of F15I Super Strike Eagle bombers, with a fighter escort. In the raid they destroyed a facility understood to be building Shahab intermediate range ballistic missiles.
Much of the factory blew up as ammunition stockpiles exploded. At least two people died in the immediate raid according to reports from the ground.
The Israeli bombers had to complete a round trip of about 2,400 miles, as The Sunday Times reports, so they had to be refueled in mid-air by an Israeli Boeing 707 air tanker somewhere over the Red Sea.
A Gulfstream G550 packed with electronic jamming kit flew to suppress ground-to-air missile defences round Khartoum, and possibly to mask Egyptian air defence radars in Sinai. Two CH-53 helicopters patrolled the Red Sea, ready to rescue Israeli aircrew if they had to ditch.
The Shahab missiles were being built in Sudan under Iranian supervision, according to the Israelis. This link was first identified from papers seized from a senior operative for Palestinian Hamas, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was suffocated in a Dubai hotel by Israeli Mossad agents two and a half years ago. In his briefcase were papers revealing a trade in missiles and weapons between Sudan and Iran via Sinai.
The suggestion that the Israeli attack on the Khartoum site was a dry run for a possible Israeli raid, or series of raids, on Iran, seems over-simplistic.
The weapons being built in the Sudan factory were a target in their own right, because they could pose a short-term threat. They could have been set up in remote parts of the Sinai desert, or in some form be smuggled into Gaza – a direct threat to Israel.
They could also be taken to Iran to be fitted with nuclear warheads. If Iran is to build a credible nuclear arsenal, it will need to have quite a number of Shahab intermediate range missiles to deliver them. It might be difficult to build them quickly given the present sanctions against the regime and the extent of western aerial and satellite surveillance of Iran today.
An attack on Iran by Israel would be far more complex, and riskier, than the raid on Khartoum. Iran's anti-aircraft missile systems are more sophisticated than those round the Sudanese capital. And it is doubtful that the Israelis could manage such a complex air operation without the support and participation, most likely, of the Americans.
The timing of the Khartoum raid, however, has put down a marker for the winner of next week's US presidential election. It was a message from Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu that time for a decision on physical confrontation with Iran is very short.
There's another message, too, from Khartoum. The Shahab missile, of the kind being built in Sudan, is a relatively cheap way for a country to acquire a nuclear weapon. The Shahab is a development of the Scud missile, which can have a range of up to 1,000 miles. It is relatively easy to fit it with a nuclear warhead, acquired from North Korea, or wherever, via the AQ Khan network.
It is thought that up to 18 countries are considering such a programme, in addition to the nine known nuclear powers. The fear is that we are on the edge of a new surge in nuclear weapons proliferation.