Increasingly concerned about Iran’s nuclear program, Israel is weighing its options and has not ruled out a military strike to prevent the Islamic Republic from gaining the capability to build atomic weapons, according to policymakers, military officials, analysts and diplomats.
Israel would much prefer a diplomatic agreement to shut down Iran’s uranium enrichment program, but if it concluded that Tehran was approaching a “point of no return,” it would not be deterred by the difficulty of a military operation, the prospect of retaliation or the international reaction, officials and analysts said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his top aides have been asserting for months that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a clear threat to Israel’s existence. They have repeatedly threatened, in elliptical but unmistakable terms, to use force if diplomacy and the threat of sanctions fail.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper last month that “all options” were being weighed to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. The army chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, declared: “We will not rely on others.”
Iran presents “a combination of factors that rise to the highest level of Israeli threat perception,” said analyst Gerald Steinberg of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
“Nuclear weapons in a country with a fundamentalist regime, a government with which we have no diplomatic contact, a known sponsor of terrorist groups like Hezbollah and which wants to wipe Israel off the map -- that makes stable deterrence extremely difficult, if not impossible,” Steinberg said.
Israel’s concerns are magnified by the fact that Iran already possesses the medium-range Shahab-3 missile, which is capable of reaching Israel with either a conventional or non-conventional warhead. Iran said this week that it had test-fired an upgraded, more accurate version of the missile.
Preemptive strikes have always been an essential element of Israel’s military doctrine. Perhaps the most pertinent example is the air raid that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981.
Experts are divided, however, on whether that precedent should be viewed as a window into Israel’s thinking on Iran.
“The comparison to 1981 is of the utmost relevance because the decision-making is based on the same factors,” said army reserve Col. Danny Shoham, a former military intelligence officer who is now a researcher at Bar-Ilan University. “Those are: What is the reliability of the intelligence picture? What would be the response of the opponent? What is the point of no return in terms of nuclear development, and what would be the international response?”
But he and others also noted key differences that could weigh against a military strike. Iran’s nuclear development sites are widely scattered, in many cases hidden underground and heavily fortified, so Israel would have far less opportunity to deal the Iranian program a single devastating blow.
“It would be a complicated operation. In order to undermine or disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, you would have to strike at least three or four sites,” said Ephraim Kam, the deputy head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
“Otherwise the damage would be too limited, and it would not postpone the program by more than a year or two, and this could in the end be worse than doing nothing.”
Few believe, however, that logistical challenges alone would hold back the Jewish state if it determined that a strike was necessary.
To reach Hussein’s nuclear reactor in 1981, Israeli warplanes were over hostile territory for most of their 90-minute, 680-mile flight. All the while, they held to a tightly clustered formation that resembled the radar signature of a commercial jet. When the Israelis reached their target, they destroyed the Iraqi reactor in less than a minute and a half.
The raid, which was preceded by months of rehearsals using mock-ups of the targeted reactor, is still regarded in military and aviation circles as a model of planning, operational discipline and innovation -- qualities that analysts familiar with Israel’s military capabilities say could be drawn upon again.
“I wouldn’t want to speculate about exactly how the present-day objective might be achieved, but I will say this: The Israeli air force is extremely, extremely creative in its problem-solving approach,” said Dan Schueftan, a senior fellow at the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University and the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center.
In its arsenal, Israel has the first of more than 100 sophisticated, American-built F-16I warplanes, which come with extra fuel tanks to increase their range. It also has signed a deal with Washington to acquire 500 “bunker buster” bombs that can blast through more than six feet of concrete -- the kind of fortification that might be associated with Iranian nuclear sites.
In 1981, Sharon was a Cabinet minister and among the circle of confidants around then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin who took part in deliberations over the Osirak attack. Sharon later called it “perhaps the most difficult decision” ever faced by an Israeli government.
Some of the language being used by Israeli officials now is reminiscent of statements leading up to the strike on the Iraqi reactor. Military historians recount that Rafael Eitan, then army chief of staff, dispatched the corps of elite fighter pilots on its mission with the grim words, “The alternative is our destruction.”
At the time, Begin feared for the stability of his government and thought that if he did not act swiftly, he might lose the opportunity to act at all. Sharon, under heavy pressure from opponents of his initiative to relinquish settlements in the Gaza Strip, also faces the almost daily risk that his minority coalition will collapse.
Still, any action against Iran seems unlikely to take place before the end of the year.
Israeli analysts differ somewhat in their assessment of when Iran would be seen as irrevocably on the road to developing nuclear weapons.
Steinberg said the probable “red line” would be the ability to produce kilogram-level quantities of highly enriched, bomb-grade uranium. He and others said that could be anywhere from six months to three years away.
Israeli officials and diplomats say their preferred solution is diplomacy through the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency or sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.
“We don’t want to give the impression that this entire burden rests on Israel’s shoulders,” said lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, the head of Israel’s parliamentary foreign affairs and defense committee.
But Israeli officials are also telegraphing that they do not consider the diplomatic process open-ended.
“There may be a few months when the international community can still act and place upon Iran the kind of pressure that would compel it to stop its program,” said Avi Pazner, a veteran diplomat who serves as an advisor to Sharon. “But there’s not much time -- there’s not much time.”
Opinion polls suggest that although there is little appetite in Israel for a confrontation with Iran, a substantial minority of citizens thinks one could be on the horizon. In a recent poll commissioned by the Maariv newspaper, 54% said diplomatic efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program should continue, with 38% saying their country should consider a preemptive attack.
The idea of responding militarily to any perceived external threat tends to unite Israelis across the political spectrum. For example, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has long been an advocate of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians -- but is also among those who strongly believe that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an intolerable peril to Israel.
A complicating factor in the debate over Iran is Israel’s own status as an undeclared nuclear power. Israeli officials insist that their country’s presumed nuclear status enhances regional stability by serving as a deterrent but say Iran’s possession of atomic weapons would almost certainly trigger an arms race with rival Muslim states.
“It would break the dam, so to speak, and spill over into the whole Middle East,” said Uzi Arad, director of the Institute of Policy and Strategy at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center. “There would be tremendous danger arising from this.”
Arad and others said that if Iran became a nuclear power, it would spur even relatively moderate countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to achieve similar status and embolden more radical regimes -- for example, pushing Moammar Kadafi’s Libya to abandon its recent conciliatory stance toward international regulators.
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel was well aware that even if it acted alone against Iran, the United States, as its closest ally, would inevitably be seen as complicit. That would virtually guarantee an outburst of antagonism across the Muslim world that America could ill afford at a time of bitter feelings over the war in Iraq.
Still, George Perkovich, who studies nuclear proliferation issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said it would be “hard to imagine a strong negative American reaction” to an Israeli strike if diplomatic efforts failed.
Another U.S. analyst said that Iran’s program was further along and more dispersed than Iraq’s was in 1981. “The comparisons between Osirak and the situation in Iran today are simply wrong,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
He said Israel’s attack slowed, but did not terminate, Iraq’s effort to develop nuclear weapons and probably encouraged Hussein to try to develop biological and chemical arms.
Israel’s military establishment regards the United States, with its large concentration of troops in the region and its long-range air power, as far better equipped than Israel to mount a strike against Iran or to provide assistance and support for one.
“If it comes to a military move, it should be in concert,” said analyst Kam of the Jaffee Center. “Israel isn’t the only country that’s affected. And it’s not for a local power like Israel to act -- it’s a question for a superpower.”
Times staff writers Sonni Efron and John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.