Page 40 of 43
An aide complied immediately, triggering a command sequence that would soon result in air-raid sirens being sounded throughout the country, not knowing yet which cities were targeted but not wanting to take a chance.
“How many do you have?” Shimon asked.
“I count six—no, eight!” the watch commander said.
Naphtali turned to see what was happening. “Mr. President,” he said, “I must go. Our country is under attack.”
He hung up the phone and headed into the war room only to see the radar tracks of eight ship-to-surface ballistic missiles inbound from the Sabalan. As the telemetry poured in, supercomputers calculated the missiles’ size, speed, trajectory, and likely points of impact. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to guess that most were headed for all of the major population centers along the coast. But Naphtali was stunned to see one of the missiles heading for Jerusalem.
* * *
David’s phone rang just as the cab was nearing the mosque.
“You were right,” Zalinsky said, coming back on the line. “Something is happening.”
“The Israelis have just attacked the Iranian naval flotilla,” Zalinsky exclaimed. “The Iranians were able to fire off a salvo of missiles at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. NSA indicates Israeli cruise missiles are hitting targets all over Iran. Israeli jets are in the air. I need to brief the director. He just got in. But grab Nouri if you can, get to one of the safe houses, and hunker down. I’m guessing most of the Israeli Air Force is going to be on top of you any minute.”
* * *
Tel Aviv, Israel
“Fire the Arrows—now!” Naphtali ordered.
Shimon and the IDF chief of staff barked orders at military aides, who relayed them by secure phone and data lines to commanders at air and missile bases throughout the country. But all of it took precious time.
Naphtali’s fists clenched. He scanned the different visual displays in front of him and locked onto one piece of data above the rest. It indicated that the first missile impact would be in downtown Tel Aviv in less than ninety seconds.
* * *
Ten Israeli F-15s swooped in over Hamadan.
They snaked through the mountains and took out the air defenses with little resistance. Then, turning around and taking one pass after another, each pilot fired two bunker-buster bombs on the 400,000-square-foot underground nuclear research and production complex and the administrative buildings on the surface that had been home for Saddaji, Malik, Khan, and Zandi for so many years. Facility 278 was no more. The bombs decimated all life for half a mile and shook the city so hard that many thought another earthquake was under way.
In Arak, four Israeli F-16s dropped GBU-10 bombs on all the buildings surrounding the heavy-water reactor. They were under strict orders not to hit the reactor itself and by God’s grace did not. Within minutes, the sixty-thousand-square-foot aboveground complex was completely destroyed, and the reactor was rendered useless.
The pilots turned and headed home.
* * *
Tel Aviv, Israel
The prime minister was actually wrong.
The Arrow wasn’t designed to stop short-range missiles. Their only hope at this point was the Patriot. Fortunately, there was a Patriot battalion located at the air base at Tel Nof, just south of Tel Aviv, made up of a fire control center, a radar center, six mobile missile batteries mounted on the backs of specially designed semitrailers, and more than four hundred Israeli personnel running the highly complex operation.
But as Naphtali and Shimon watched the video feeds and listened to the encrypted radio traffic from their vantage point in the main war room at the defense ministry, they weren’t sure if the team at Tel Nof was going to be able to react in time.
* * *
“I’m seeing three Tel Aviv inbounds,” the on-site commander said.
“That’s affirm—I have three,” the tactical control officer said.
“Time to target?”
“First to hit in eighty seconds, sir. Do you certify inbounds are hostile?”
“I certify all are hostile. Select firing batteries.”
“Batteries selected, sir.”
“Go from standby to engage.”
“System engaged,” the TCO said, triple-checking his instrumentation.
“Illuminate the targets.”
“Fire one and two—go!” the commander said.
The TCO flipped a switch and fired the first two PAC-3 missiles moments apart.
“Fire three and four—go!”
The TCO launched the second round of Patriots.
“Fire five and six—go!”
The third set of Patriot missiles exploded from their launchers and streaked into the sky.
* * *
“Get a lock on the Jerusalem inbound—now!”
To Naphtali, listening to the radio traffic, the thirty-one-year-old Patriot missile battery commander at the Palmachim Air Base near Rishon LeZion, just south of Tel Aviv, didn’t sound nearly as controlled and professional as the commander at Tel Nof or the Patriot commanders in Ashdod or Haifa who were simultaneously ordering their men to identify, track, and fire at the inbounds. But Naphtali felt the young man’s urgency. None of them knew which missile, if any, had the nuclear warhead, so they couldn’t afford to let a single one through.
The Palmachim commander rapidly ran through the checklist of procedures with his tactical control officer. Then he ordered the TCO to fire on the single ballistic missile headed for the heart of Jerusalem.
Three PAC-3 interceptors burst from their canisters and raced upward at Mach 5.0. One of the video screens in the war room showed a live shot from a camera on the roof of the air base, and Naphtali could see the white contrails of the Patriots streaking toward their prey.
* * *
A massive explosion occurred in the skies over Tel Aviv.
Two seconds later, a second concussion could be heard and felt for miles. The first inbound missile had just suffered a direct hit from the lead Patriot interceptor. The second interceptor hit the missile’s debris, and its explosion turned what was left into dust.
Back at Tel Nof, the fire control room erupted with wild cheering. The cheering intensified when the second set of Patriot interceptors hit their marks as well. But then the room went deadly quiet as the third set of PAC-3 interceptors missed their marks by less than thirty meters and ten meters respectively.
Horrified, the commander, the TCO, the radar operator, and the rest of the staff could only watch helplessly as the third Iranian missile accelerated to earth with no way for any of them to stop it. An instant later, it plunged through the roof of the sprawling Dizengoff shopping center in the heart of Israel’s commercial capital, instantly killing more than four hundred shoppers and causing much of the building to collapse upon itself.
The people had never had a warning. Only seconds later did the air-raid sirens in Tel Aviv and throughout the rest of Israel begin to sound.
* * *
Naphtali saw it too.
He, too, was horrified. There was no indication the warhead was nuclear. But could it have been chemical? Biological?
Still, his attention quickly shifted back to the ballistic missile inbound for Jerusalem. The air-raid sirens were now sounding. But he knew it was all going to be too late. Scores of Israelis were about to die unless this missile was somehow intercepted. But it had already reached its apogee. It was beginning to descend. And the Patriots were still climbing.
* * *
Esfahān was one of the more complicated targets.
All of the facilities were aboveground. None of them were hardened. But the site included four small Chinese-built research reactors and a yellowcake uranium-conversion facility in an area covering about 100,000 square feet. Three F-16s were tasked with this mission. Each fired two Paveway III guided bombs and a combination of Maverick and Harpoon air-to-ground missiles.
Simultaneously, a squadron of ten F-16s hit Iranian missile production facilities in Khorramabad, Bakhtarun, and Manzariyeh—all of which were not far from the heavy-water reactor in Arak—as well as missile production and missile launching sites near Natanz and in Hasan.
* * *
Tel Aviv, Israel
All the other inbound Iranian missiles had been shot down.
But at the moment no one in the war room could take much solace.
“It’s aiming for the Knesset!” Shimon shouted.
Sure enough, the Iranian cruise missile was now clearly bearing down on the parliament building, the heart of the Israeli democracy.
“Can’t you stop it?” Naphtali demanded. “Can’t you do something else?”
Even as he said it, Naphtali knew the answer and he couldn’t breathe. The Knesset was in session. More than a hundred legislators were there right now, Naphtali knew, being briefed by the vice prime minister on Operation Xerxes. Hundreds of staffers and security personnel and visitors and tourists were there too. There was no way to warn them, no way to get them to safety in time.
The cab finally pulled up in front of the Jamkaran Mosque.
David paid the driver but asked him to pull over to the side of the road and wait for a few minutes. David scanned the crowd but did not see Javad yet. It was hard not to marvel at the architecturally gorgeous structure, the mammoth turquoise dome of the mosque in the center, flanked by two smaller green domes on each side and two exquisitely painted minarets towering over them all. The site—revered since the tenth century, when a Shia cleric of the time, Sheikh Hassan Ibn Muthlih Jamkarani, was supposedly visited by the Twelfth Imam—had once been farmland. Now it was one of the most visited tourist destinations in all of Iran.
Over the last few years, Hosseini and Darazi had funneled millions of dollars into renovating the mosque and its facilities and building beautiful new multilane highways between the mosque and downtown Qom and between the mosque and Tehran. Both leaders visited regularly, and the mosque had become the subject of myriad books, television programs, and documentary films. After a sighting of the Twelfth Imam just prior to his appearance on the world stage and the rumor that a little girl mute from birth had been healed by the Mahdi after visiting there, the crowds had continued to build.
David watched as dozens of buses filled with pilgrims pulled in, dropped off their passengers and guides, and then circled around to the main parking lot, while other buses picked up their passengers and headed home. He estimated that there were a couple hundred people milling about out f
ront, either coming or going. There were a few uniformed police officers around, but everything seemed quiet and orderly. Javad Nouri was a shrewd man. He had chosen well. Any disturbance here would have scores of witnesses.
* * *
Approaching Natanz, Iran
Avi Yaron was still in the lead.
So far as he knew, his squadron had not been detected yet, but his hands were perspiring in his gloves. Sweat dripped down his face even though he had the air-conditioning in the cockpit on full blast. He raced low across the desert, running parallel with Iran’s Highway 7.
He knew the maps. He knew the terrain. He knew Highway 7 would take him straight into Natanz, if he wanted. But he couldn’t run the risk that someone driving along that road would see the Star of David on the tail of his or his comrades’ fighter jets and make a phone call that would blow their element of surprise. So he stayed a few kilometers to the north and kept praying that nothing would slow him, nothing would stop him.
A moment later, he pulled up hard and quickly gained altitude. A thousand meters. Two thousand. Three. Four. At five thousand meters he cleared the highest peaks of the Karkas mountain chain. Then he leveled out and accelerated again. Now the Natanz nuclear facility was before him. He could hardly believe it. He had pored over the satellite photographs. He knew every inch, every doorway, every ventilation duct. Now he could actually see the six critical buildings aboveground, the uranium separation plants, the research facilities, and the administration buildings covering some two hundred thousand square feet. Those were important, but they would be hit by the next wave of IAF pilots.
For Avi and his team, the mission was to decimate the underground complex, the pearl of the Iranian nuclear program. It covered an area of nearly seven hundred thousand square feet. It was seventy-five feet deep and covered by a steel- and concrete-hardened roof. This was where the Iranians housed some seven thousand centrifuges. These centrifuges spun night and day, enriching uranium from the 3 to 5 percent needed to run a power plant to the 20 percent needed for medical experimentation. According to the latest intel from the Mossad’s man in Tehran, this was also where the Iranians enriched the 20 percent uranium to weapons grade of 95 percent purity and higher.
“Now, Yonah, now!” Avi cried.
Behind him, his weapons systems officer fired the first of two GBU-28 bunker-buster bombs. Moments later, he fired the second.
Avi felt a surge of pride and quickly pulled up and away from the site. He imagined what it would have been like to fly over Hitler’s Germany in the forties and wished he could tell his parents—both of whom were Holocaust survivors—where he was and what he was doing.
The precision-guided munitions dropped clean. They hurtled toward the center of the underground complex as Avi shot like a rocket into the brilliant blue sky.
* * *
Tel Aviv, Israel
“Fifteen seconds to impact!” the war room commander said.
Naphtali couldn’t bear to look. And what if the warhead was nuclear? What would they do then? This couldn’t be happening, not on his watch.
Naphtali cursed himself. He should have launched the attack sooner. But he hadn’t known for certain there were nuclear warheads on the Iranian ships. What else could he have done?
The two PAC-3 interceptors were closing in, one from the south and one from the east. Until then, all Naphtali, Shimon, and the military commanders could see was the radar trajectory of the inbounds on a giant video screen. But now Israel’s Channel 2 had live images shot from a news helicopter of the Iranian missile diving for the heart of the New City of Jerusalem and the two Patriot interceptors racing to take it out.
* * *
Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep.
The missile warning light on his dashboard was going off. Seated behind him, Yonah confirmed they had two surface-to-air missiles racing toward them. Yonah immediately deployed countermeasures, firing flares and chaff while Avi rolled the F-15 to the left and raced toward the mountains. One of the missiles took the bait and exploded behind them. But the other sliced through the fireball and smoke and was rapidly catching up to them.
Below them, the earth was an inferno. Each of the Israeli fighter jets had successfully dropped its ordnance, and another dozen Israeli planes were five minutes behind them. So far they had accomplished their mission. They had achieved the element of surprise. They had dropped their bombs. They had obliterated much of the Natanz facility and had likely killed scores of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers. But that was the easy part. Now they had to get home.
Avi banked hard to the right, then rolled to the left. The missile was still behind them. It was still gaining on them. Yonah fired off another round of countermeasures, but again they were unsuccessful.
* * *
Tel Aviv, Israel
“Six seconds,” the watch commander yelled.
At that moment Levi Shimon turned away, but Naphtali couldn’t. He wanted to. He understood the instinct. But he kept watching, first the monitor with the radar track, then the live images coming in from Channel 2.
Suddenly the first Patriot interceptor clipped the tail of the inbound cruise missile. That knocked the missile off its course and sent it tumbling through the sky. A half second later, the second interceptor scored a direct hit on the warhead, turning it into a gigantic fireball crashing down to earth.
Everyone in the war room erupted in applause and cheering.
* * *
Four fighter jets suddenly roared over the mosque.
They were so low, most of the crowd instinctively ducked down. David did as well, as stunned to see the jets as anyone else. The crowd cheered, assuming they were Iranian pilots training for a showdown with the Zionists. After all, the TV and newspapers were filled with talk of imminent hostilities, even as the Mahdi proclaimed over and over again his desire for peace and justice.
But David could see these were not Russian-built MiG-29s. Nor were they aging American-built F-4 Phantoms, bought by the Shah before the Revolution. These were F-16s. President Jackson hadn’t sent them. Which could only mean one thing: the Israelis were here.
* * *
Yossi Yaron tried not to think about the mosque.
If it were up to him, he would have dropped his ordnance on the cherished site of the Twelvers and obliterated it forever. But Israeli military planners would have none of it. Israeli pilots would not be bombing religious or civilian targets under any circumstances, they repeated over and over again. They would not be bombing water or electrical plants, bridges, industrial facilities, or other civilian infrastructure.
Their focus was narrow and their mission precise: to neutralize Iran’s nuclear weapons program and protect the Israeli homeland. Could they completely wipe out the program? Probably not. But the defense minister believed they could set it back at least five to ten years, and that would buy the Jewish people desperately needed time. Yaron hoped the pilgrims at the Jamkaran Mosque had seen the Star of David on the tails of all four F-16s. He just wished he could see their faces when they realized what was happening.