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Did Israel and the U.S. Just Cooperate on a Dry-Run for an Iran Intervention?

Within hours of a bombing raid on a weapons factory in Sudan last month, the international media was pointing fingers at Israel. Some reports suggested that the strike looked like a dry run for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But lost in the reporting was the fact that thousands of US troops, including senior military officials, were in Israel the day Sudan was attacked. If the U.S. indeed cooperated with Israel in the attack, then this might have been a dry run of an entirely different sort—one that would belie the very public disagreements between the two countries over intervention in Iran.

According to Michael Ross, a former Mossad officer, there is “no doubt at all” that the Yarmouk complex was being used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz also notes that members of the Sudanese opposition have fingered Yarmouk as an IRGC facility. Ross says that Sudan “has been a hub for IRGC activities since 1989.” He adds that, “In 1995, in retaliation for the Argentina AMIA bombings in 1994, we were considering retaliating against the Iranians in Sudan. The mission was scrapped by Prime Minister Rabin for fear of escalation.”

In recent years, however, Israel has shed those fears. The Israelis are widely believed to have carried out several military operations against targets in Sudan.  In 2009, they reportedly launched three airstrikes in Sudan, targeting Iranian weapons shipments destined for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. One of those attacks destroyed a 17-truck convoy. Another attack in 2011 targeted a car carrying two men near the town of Port Sudan. And Reuters reports that, “Foreign intelligence sources said Israel carried out an unmanned drone raid on a convoy south of Khartoum [in September] that destroyed 200 tons of munitions.” 

As they always do following a covert attack, Israeli officials denied any knowledge of the recent raid“Thereis nothing I can say about this subject,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israeli TV—though hardly anyone believes him. The more interesting question is whether the United States was involved. The Arabic daily Al-Hayat reports that some Sudanese officials believe the United States knew about the strike in advance and closed its embassy for fear of retribution. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland called the article “misreporting,” noting that the embassy has been closed since September 12 for security reasons.

But there's more than innuendo. On October 24, Israel and the United States held a large joint military exercise, known as Austere Challenge 2012, in which 3,500 U.S. troops took part. Austere Challenge involved the deployment of sophisticated US missile defense systems in Israel, but no aircraft, according to the US Department of Defense. Yet, just hours before the exercise began, four jets — widely believed to be Israeli — reportedly bombed a weapons depot tied to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

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It is also important to note that Yarmouk has been a target of interest for both the United States and Israel for some time. A leaked 2006 State Department cable notes that the plant had the “potential to make a material contribution to missile, WMD, or certain other weapons programs.” Later that year, State also flagged it on its federal registry as an entity of proliferation concern. As early as 1998, Human Rights Watch also noted its concern that Yarmouk “stored chemical weapons for Iraq.” 

One American defense official familiar with U.S. operations in North Africa believes there is a distinct possibility “the Israelis did this with the American military right there, without telling them.” My colleague Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operative, agrees. He adds, “it’s a possible foretaste of what would happen by June against [nuclear installations in] Iran. The Israelis will not ask for U.S. permission to carry out a raid against Iran.” However, Major Robert Firman, a public affairs officer at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, told me that the U.S. military had “no foreknowledge” and provided “no assistance” in the reported attack on Sudan. 

In all likelihood, according to Jacob Abel, a former Iran analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the attack was precipitated by a “game changing” rocket — one with a longer range or bigger payload than had previously been smuggled to Gaza — that was either being constructed or stored at Yarmouk. “The Israelis were likely watching the facility or intercepted information that drew deep concern.”

There is also ample reason to believe the attack was intended as a message to the Iranians. Not only did it show (again) that the IRGC’s activities in Sudan are well-tracked. It also demonstrated that Israel’s jets can strike targets at great distances — specifically, a distance that’s roughly equal to or longer than the distance between Israel and Iran’s nuclear sites. In another interesting wrinkle, immediately before the jets hit the plant, telecommunicationsin the surrounding area reportedly went dark, much as they did in the minutes leading up to Israel’s strike on Syria’s nuclear reactorin 2007.

Of course, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a very different proposition. One of Israel’s targets in Iran, the Fordow nuclear facility, is burrowed deep in the side of mountain and is heavily fortified. As a result,the bombs Israel would need to do the job would be much heavier, necessitating much more fuel than what was needed for Yarmouk. And while Sudan’s air defenses are virtually nonexistent, Iran’s are likely much more robust. Finally, Gerecht adds, the number of jets needed to attack Iran could be roughly 20 times that which hit Sudan. For that reason, it’s difficult to conceive of a direct attack on Iran without some sort of American involvement.

That’s precisely why the presence of the U.S. military in Israel during the recent large-scale military operation in Sudan is so intriguing. Indeed, whether or not the U.S. was involved almost doesn’t matter. Iran must now account for this recent episode in its nuclear calculus. The very possibility that Jerusalem and Washington have closed the gap in their debate over Iran intervention is a weapon all its own.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism intelligence analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.