The Israel-Iran War – The New Cold War

By Gideon

This article follows the article  A Stolen Russian fighter Jet, America, Israel, and a Cold War , which told the story of how Israel  helped America during the Vietnam war, and the article Israel’s Role in the New Cold War.

Imagine a scenario when Russia arms Iran and Assad’s Syrian forces with the most sophisticated weapon systems that include the newest jet fighters equipped with stealth technology capable of entering Israel’s airspace undetected, the most advanced anti-air missile defense system, hundreds of modern tanks and drones, military training, international support, and a shield against American retaliation.

Imagine a scenario when Iran has completed its territorial expansion in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.  When Iran is in the process of taking over Iraq after overthrowing the Saudi and Jordanian governments and installing Iranian supporters as rulers of these countries. In this scenario, Iran is very strong and powerful.

In this scenario America is preoccupied with a difficult war in Europe. NATO is trying to stop Russian backed “Ukrainian volunteers” military forces from advancing into Poland and western Europe. The sitting American president has trouble at home. He is facing corruption allegations that threaten his presidency. These allegations, if found true, could send him to prison. America is in a fierce trade war with China, the country is at a state of unrest due to high unemployment. America is not in a position to help Israel or any other country. 

Turkey feels threatened and aligns itself with Iran for self-preservation. Turkey is getting closer to Russia and exiting NATO. All American bases in Turkey are closed down. Iran is ready to face its last obstacle, Israel, which is in its way of invading Egypt and the rest of the Muslim countries in Northern Africa. Iran takes the opportunity when no one is looking and launches a surprise attack against Israel.

Tens of thousands of missiles are fired from Lebanon and Gaza into Israel. Guerilla fighters from Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Jordan climb over and under the fences into Israel. Massive columns of Iranian, Syrian, and Jordanian tanks, and infantry units cross the border from Syria into the Golan heights, from Lebanon into Northern Israel, and from Jordan into the Judea and Samaria. The Palestinians join the Iranians. The Palestinians sabotage critical Israeli infrastructure and send massive waves of suicide bombers into Israeli cities in order to create chaos and confusion.

Israel has a superior army and has the military answers to all these possibilities. The Israeli air force, navy, and special forces strike deep in Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. Israel take the war to the Iranians, who for the first time feel what is it to be under a major attack in their own cities. The Iranian capital Tehran is on fire. Israel goes after military bases and government institutions. The Israeli army cripples Iran’s infrastructure and oil fields. The Israeli Mossad stir internal uprising in Iran. The many oppressed ethnic groups in Iran begin an independence guerilla war. Iran faces a national crisis. 

Israel does not hesitate to go after Russian forces when they are actively involved in the fighting. It enforces tight control over Palestinian cities. It uses its sophisticated defensive anti-missile systems to shoot down enemy missiles. Israel drives enemy forces back into their territories. Israel ends Hamas’ rule in Gaza and delivers devastating blows to Hezbollah in Lebanon. There are heavy casualties on both sides, but Israel is the clear winner. 

The Iranian government is on the verge of collapse. The Iranian leaders try to stop the war they had started, but Israel is taking advantage of the newly developed situation and cleaning up the region from hostile forces. Israel does not want to stop its advance before it completes its objectives. The Iranians lose their influence in the region and their ambitions for an empire across the entire Middle East go up in flame. The Iranians consider using their last option, a nuclear war. The superpowers have no choice but to impose an immediate cease-fire on both sides. Israel can not win the war alone. It depends on the US for military supplies, so the war ends abruptly as it started.

This is not an unreasonable scenario. Israel faced a similar situation in 1973 when Egypt and Syria launched a massive coordinated attack against Israel. The Arab armies were backed by Russia (which was called the Soviet Union at the time).  We can learn a lot about how this potential future war would progress and what the superpowers would do from what happened in 1973.

When the war broke in 1973 America was preoccupied with its own difficult war in Vietnam. Richard Nixon, the American president was up to his neck in the Watergate scandal. His immediate attention was to try and save himself from losing his presidency. According to reports he was drinking heavily and many times was “unavailable”.

America was not in a position to provide active military aid to Israel. The European countries were so worried about Arab oil embargo that they did nothing to help Israel. Except for one European country, Portugal, which caved under tremendous American pressure, European countries did not allow their main ally, the United State of America, to land aircrafts on their soils for refueling. The European countries refused American military pilots landing rights because they were carrying emergency military supply to Israel.

As far as Europe was concerned, it was okay to let the Arab countries destroy Israel as long as oil continued to flow to Europe. Today, when the Arab population is much greater in European countries, politically it would be even more difficult for European leaders to allow US aircrafts with emergency military aid to Israel to refuel on their soil.  

On the evening of Oct. 8, 1973, the tiny state of Israel’s existence hung by a thread. After a surprise attack on the Jewish state by Egypt and Syria two days earlier, during Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year — with most of the country’s professional fighting force praying — a few thousand Israeli reservists were locked in a desperate battle on two fronts: the Golan Heights in Syria and the Suez Canal on the Sinai Peninsula.

In the north, a few dozen reservists in aging British-built Centurion tanks were engaged in the biggest armored battle since the Battle of Kursk in 1943 as hundreds of Russian-built T-55 and T-62s tried to muscle their way across the Golan and into Israel with the goal of cutting the country in two.

In the south, a rejuvenated Egyptian army poured across the Suez Canal, using water hoses to collapse anti-tank sand berms on the east bank. Israel’s U.S.-made M-60 tanks attempting a counterattack were destroyed by new antitank guided missiles. In the sky, the Israeli air force saw dozens of its U.S.-built Phantoms and Skyhawks downed by new Soviet surface-to-air missiles protecting the Suez bridgehead and Syrian armor on the Golan.

Starting on October 9, the Soviet Union began supplying Egypt and Syria by air and by sea. The Soviets airlifted 12,500–15,000 tons of supplies, of which 6,000 tons went to Egypt, 3,750 tons went to Syria and 575 tons went to Iraq. Arab losses were so high and the attrition rate so great that equipment was taken directly from Soviet and Warsaw Pact stores to supply the airlift. Antonov An-12 and AN-22 aircraft flew over 900 missions during the airlift.

The Soviets supplied another 63,000 tons, mainly to Syria, by means of a sealift by October 30. T-55 and T-62 tanks supplied by the sealift were directed towards replacing Syrian losses, transported from Odessa on the Black Sea to the Syrian port of Latakia.

On the Golan front, Syrian forces received direct support from Soviet technicians and military personnel. At the start of the war, there were an estimated 2,000 Soviet personnel in Syria, of whom 1,000 were serving in Syrian air defense units.

Soviet technicians repaired damaged tanks, SAMs and radar equipment, assembled fighter jets that arrived via the sealift, and drove tanks supplied by the sealift from ports to Damascus. On both the Golan and Sinai fronts, Soviet military personnel retrieved abandoned Israeli military equipment for shipment to Moscow. 

Soviet advisors were reportedly present in Syrian command posts “at every echelon, from battalion up, including supreme headquarters”. Some Soviet military personnel went into battle with the Syrians, and it was estimated that 20 were killed in action and more were wounded. In July 1974, Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres informed the Knesset that high-ranking Soviet officers had been killed on the Syrian front during the war. There were strong rumors that a handful were taken prisoner, but this was denied. However, it was noted that certain Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate just after the war, leading to suspicions of a covert exchange. 

The Observer wrote that seven Soviets in uniform were taken prisoner after surrendering when the Israelis overran their bunker. The Israelis reportedly took the prisoners to Ramat David Airbase for interrogation and treated the incident with great secrecy. Israeli military intelligence reported that Soviet-piloted MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor/reconnaissance aircraft conducted flyovers over the Canal Zone.

On October 9, the Soviet cultural center in Damascus was damaged during an Israeli airstrike, and two days later, the Soviet merchant ship Ilya Mechnikov was sunk by the Israeli Navy during a battle off Syria. The Soviets condemned Israeli actions, and there were calls within the government for military retaliation. The Soviets ultimately reacted by deploying two destroyers off the Syrian coast. Soviet warships in the Mediterranean were authorized to open fire on Israeli combatants approaching Soviet convoys and transports. There were several recorded instances of Soviet ships exchanging fire with Israeli forces. In particular, the Soviet minesweeper Rulevoi and the medium landing ship SDK-137, guarding Soviet transport ships at the Syrian port of Latakia, fired on approaching Israeli jets.

One of the most critical but least celebrated airlifts in history unfolded over a desperate 32 days in the fall of 1973. An armada of the US Airforce Military Airlift Command (MAC) aircraft carried thousands of tons of materiel over vast distances into the midst of the most ferocious fighting the Middle East had ever witnessed.

On the morning of 9 October, the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger was told by the Israeli ambassador Dinitz that Israeli forces were in a more “difficult” position. A counter-offensive launched the previous day had failed with major losses. Dinitz acknowledging that the Israelis had lost over 400 tanks to the Egyptians and 100 to the Syrians. Egyptian armor and surface-to-air missiles were taking their toll in the air and ground battle and the Israeli cabinet had decided that it had to “get all equipment and planes by air that we can.”

President Nixon, in response to a personal plea from Meir, had made the crucial decision Oct. 9 to re-supply Israel. On Oct. 12, Nixon personally decided that Airforce Military Airlift Command (MAC) would handle the entire airlift.

Nixon hit the roof when he learned that Sec. of State Henry Kissinger delayed the airlift order because of a concern that it would offend the Russians. Despite the opposition of his national security and foreign policy brain trust, Nixon ordered the airlift, saying, “We are going to get blamed just as much for three planes as for three hundred,” and later in exasperation at the slow start of US support, said “Use every [plane] we have—everything that will fly.”

However, four days would pass before the executive office could make a final decision on how the re-supply would be executed. During the airlift, the U.S. Air Force shipped 22,395 tons of tanks, artillery, ammunition, and supplies to Israel aboard C-141 Starlifters and C-5 Galaxies.

The threat of an oil embargo frightened US allies. With a single exception, they all denied landing and overflight rights to the emergency MAC flights. The exception was Portugal, which, after hard bargaining, essentially agreed to look the other way as traffic mushroomed at Lajes Field. Daily departure flights grew from one to 40 over a few days.

More than 20 sites in the United States were designated to be cargo pick-up points where the US military would assemble materiel for shipment to Israel. Equipment, some directly from war-reserve stocks, began pouring into these sites. Less than nine hours after Nixon’s decision, MAC had C-141s and C-5s ready to depart. There would be some initial delays, and they would encounter some difficulties en route, but they would be the first of a flood of aircraft into Israel.

The route was deliberately placed along the center of the Mediterranean Sea on the Flight Information Region boundary line dividing the airspace of the hostile African states to the south and that of the “friendly” European states to the north.

The threat of Arab interception was real, and the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet acted as protector until the transports came within about 200 miles of Israel. There Israeli air force fighters took over. Although threats were made by radio, and several unidentified fighters were seen, no overt hostile action was taken.

The continuous flood of US war materiel enabled Israeli forces to go on the offensive in the latter stages of the war. In the north, Israel’s ground forces recovered all territory that had been lost and began to march on Damascus. In the Sinai, tank forces smashed back across the Suez, encircled the Egyptian Third Army on the western side of the canal, and threatened Ismailia, Suez City, and even Cairo itself.

If there’s a major war between Israel and Iran when America and Russia are in a new Cold War the airlift described above is likely to be repeated in one way or another.

Will Israel, Iran, the US, or Russia initiate a nuclear war?

Perhaps not initially, but things could get out of hand just as they did in the 1973 War. The idea of using a nuclear option was brought up in an emergency meeting with the prime minister Golda Meir on the 2nd day of the war by the defense minister Moshe Dayan when the situation on the battlefield seemed beyond hope. see: How close did Israel come to nuclear war in 1973?).

Could a war between Israel and Iran trigger a direct war between America and Russia? 

It almost did in 1973:

Responding to Cairo’s plea, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev warned Washington that if Israel did not lift its siege of the Third Army, the Soviet Union would have to consider sending in troops to do so. Airborne divisions were put on alert in the Soviet Union and Volubuyev was ordered to organize a naval infantry force made up of volunteers from his squadron to be landed at Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal in a show of support for Egypt.

The Pentagon’s response to Brezhnev’s warning was a worldwide alert, Defcon (Defensive Condition) 3, the highest state of readiness in peacetime. An American airborne division was put on standby for departure to the Middle East and 50 B-52 strategic bombers were recalled from Guam to the US. A third carrier task force was ordered into the Mediterranean and a 2,000-man marine detachment with the Sixth Fleet was moved south of Crete, closer to the battle area. The Soviet squadron, reinforced through the Dardenelles, now numbered 97 vessels, including 23 submarines, while the Sixth Fleet had grown to 60. 

Summoning the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Simha Dinitz, Kissinger told him that destruction of the Third Army “is an option that doesn’t exist.” A few hours later, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat agreed to talks with Israel that, in turn, agreed to permit non-military supplies, including water, to reach the trapped force.