As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads to Washington–and his speech to a joint session of Congress–the charges and recriminations between the U.S. and Israel are flying fast and furious.  It’s no secret the Obama Administration is furious about Mr. Netanyahu’s accepting the invitation to address Congress (which was extended by House Speaker John Boehner, without White House approval).  Likewise, the Israelis are upset over Mr. Obama’s determination to reach a nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that will (by most accounts) be a very bad deal for everyone except Tehran, putting the entire Middle East and eventually, the world, at grave risk from an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons.

So, it’s no surprise that both Washington and Jerusalem are trying to undercut each other in the run-up to Mr. Netanyahu’s address on 3 March.  On Friday, senior administration officials made themselves available for a session with reporters, attempting to refute the Israeli leader’s planned critique, claiming that Netanyahu has failed to present a “feasible alternative” to the American plan for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

From The New York Times:

“…senior administration officials contended that even an imperfect agreement that kept Iran’s nuclear efforts frozen for an extended period was preferable to a breakdown in talks that could allow the leadership in Tehran unfettered ability to produce enriched uranium and plutonium.

“The alternative to not having a deal is losing inspections,” said one senior official, who would not be quoted by name under conditions that the administration set for the briefing, “and an Iran ever closer to having the fissile material to manufacture a weapon.”
And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the option of presenting Mr. Netanyahu as a hot-head, anxious to ignite a regional conflict that would engulf Israel, Iran, various Arab countries and even the United States.  
To underscore that possibility, a rather interesting–albeit implausible–story has been making the rounds in recent hours.  According to a Palestinian news agency, citing a Kuwaiti newspaper, President Obama supposedly thwarted an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2014, vowing to shoot down IAF jets before they could reach their targets. The U.S. supposedly learned of the attack plans from an Israeli cabinet minister, who relayed the information to Secretary of State John Kerry.  The Secretary, of course, notified the commander-in-chief, allowing Mr. Obama to deliver his ultimatum.  
Needless to say, this account is somewhat dubious–and that’s being charitable.  Hard to imagine that an obscure Kuwaiti paper would get such a scoop, although it’s possible a senior U.S. diplomat in that country–or someone from Kerry’s staff–decided to plant the story with that publication.  That creates a certain degree of plausible deniability that wouldn’t be associated with a report in a pro-Obama American publication like the Times or the Washington Post.  
On the other hand, using a Kuwaiti paper does ensure the message will reach a significant Middle Eastern (read: Muslim) audience, which the administration is clearly trying to reach.   “Getting tough” with the Israelis always plays well in certain quarters, although if recent media reports are accurate, a number of Arab regimes would welcome an Israeli raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities.  More than two years ago, Israel was said to be working with Saudi Arabia on a plan that would allow the IAF to use the kingdom’s airspace for a raid against Iran.  While those reports were never fully confirmed, some military accounts suggest that Israeli warplanes used Saudi airspace to strike Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981.
As for Mr. Obama’s vow to down IAF jets before they could reach Iran, that is little more than a hollow threat, for a variety of reasons.   First, there are the matters of basing, geography and routing.  Flying across Iraq offers a direct flight path to Iran, saving both time and fuel.  But the Iraqi Air Force has only a handful of F-16s (and qualified pilots), and it is clearly no match for the IAF.  
Of course, U.S. airpower remains a dominant force in the region, with USAF fighters based at various locations (including Qatar) and at least one aircraft carrier always deployed to the Persian Gulf.  American combat aircraft are supported by AWACS, airborne early warning and intelligence-collection aircraft, allowing U.S. commanders to maintain a comprehensive air picture that spans an area from Afghanistan to the Levant.  
But the availability of these assets does not guarantee that we could detect–let alone intercept–an Israeli strike package heading to Iran.  As we’ve detailed in the past, the IAF could employ a number of deceptive measures and/or basing options that would prevent detection of their plans, or delay it long enough that the U.S. could not respond.  
We’ll start with the marshaling of Israeli air assets and their launch.  It’s no secret where IAF F-15s and F-16s are based, and the same holds true for KC-707 tankers (which would provide in-flight refueling), search-and-rescue platforms and other support aircraft.  U.S. intelligence assets monitor these installations on a daily basis and monitor flight activity.  
How would the IAF conceal the launch of their strike package?  By simply staging a large-scale exercise, with dozens of aircraft launching, recovering and conducting training activity over a period of several days.  Against that backdrop, it would be difficult to pick out dedicated strike aircraft, which could “arm-up” in their shelters, launch and head to a range area over the Mediterranean, before switching off their transponders and turning towards Iran.  

Israel’s mastery of tactical deception is matched by their knowledge of U.S. intelligence assets and collection patterns.  The start of any strike against Iran would–likely–coincide with gaps in American satellite coverage and periods when airborne assets (such as the RC-135 and EP-3) are not present.  Those factors would decrease our chances for early detection of an IAF long-range strike against Iran.

As we’ve noted in the past, one of the greatest limitations faced by the IAF is their limited number of air refueling assets.  With only seven KC-707s in the Israeli inventory (and no more than 4-5 dedicated to the Iran mission), the size of the strike package is limited by the number of fighter aircraft that could be supported by the tankers.  Various estimates put the number of F-15s and F-16s at somewhere between 24 and 42.  However, not all of those aircraft will be putting bombs on target; at least some of the Eagles will be assigned to offensive counter-air missions, performing fighter sweeps ahead of the strikers, to ensure that hostile fighters do not interfere with strike aircraft.

But Israel may have other options that would preclude a round-robin, non-stop bombing mission.  Some sources suggest that Saudi Arabia might be willing to let the IAF utilize some of its installations as a post-strike refueling stop.  That would reduce tanker support requirements and allow the Israelis to dispatch more attack aircraft, but there are no assurances such a deal has been reached, and cooperation with Jerusalem would come at a high cost for the Saudi government.  Still, given the alternative (a nuclear-armed Iran), Riyadh may decide the risk is worth taking.

Another–and more likely–forward basing option is located north of Iran, in Azerbaijan.  Relations between Jerusalem and Baku have grown close in recent years; Israel is a key customer for Azeri oil exports and the IDF has helped Azerbaijan upgrade its military forces and provides critical intelligence information on Iran.  The Baku government has long been suspicious of Tehran, accusing the Iranians of trying to inflame Azerbaijan’s Shia majority, who live under one of the few remaining secular governments in the Islamic world.  Almost three years ago, we noted the growing relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan, and most experts agreed that Baku would have no problem with Israel using its bases to support a strike against Iran, provided the IAF presence was limited and not widely publicized.

How important is forward basing for a potential Israeli strike?  According to one study, the availability of Azeri bases would allow strike aircraft to top off in Israeli airspace, fly to the target and land at fields south of Baku.  That would not only reduce the tanker “profile” for the mission, it would also allow the KC-707s to focus on supporting the F-15s, which would need more fuel, particularly if they are engaged by Iranian jets, or those from another Air Force.

And how do you get the strike package from Israel to Iran without being detected?  One scenario frequently discussed by intelligence analysts is assigning commercial call-signs and IFF squawks to the tankers, and sending them along established air routes.  Strike aircraft would fly in close formation with the KC-707 (a technique known as “resolution cell”) so the radar return appears as a single, large aircraft.

Using a combination of these measures, the IAF is more than capable of getting a strike package off the ground, across one thousand miles of hostile territory and into Iranian airspace–without U.S. detection.  At that point, President Obama would be faced with an array of unappealing choices, including the prospect of sending American fighters (and their pilots) into a combat environment to “deter” the Israelis.  Not only would we likely lose aircraft and crews, the effort would be classified as the U.S. going to the defense of an arch-enemy, against one of its oldest and closest allies.  Not only is that strategically stupid, it would also represent Mr. Obama’s political death warrant.

If the IAF uses forward bases in Saudi Arabia or Azerbaijan, we would be confronted with equally difficult choices.  Do you enter the airspace of other allies to confront or engage the Israelis?  Or, if we decide to punish either country for supporting an Israeli strike against Iran, the regional consequences would be devastating, with a further erosion of American prestige and credibility.

Suffice it to say, Mr. Obama’s promise to “shoot down” Israeli war planes heading for Iran was like much of his bluster, unsupported by ground truth and rooted more in rhetoric than reality.  More importantly, virtually everyone who would be impacted by an Israeli strike knows that Obama’s vow is just another empty threat, another sign of America’s grand retreat on the world stage.