With international efforts to increase sanctions against Iran at a standstill, many Israelis believe their nation alone stands in the way of Tehran eventually building nuclear weapons.
But officials and analysts in Jerusalem also acknowledge that a unilateral attack is fraught with danger and might fail to cripple Iran’s bomb-making abilities. Much of the international community quietly wants Israel to launch a strike, the officials say, but only if it can succeed.
“They will be very happy if we do their dirty work for them,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “The world is moving into ‘What can we do about it?’ mode. There is a strong instinct here to do it on our own.”
To many in Israel, the situation is reminiscent of 1981, when the Jewish state acted on its own in bombing the Osirak reactor in Iraq, and last year, when it launched a unilateral strike on an alleged nuclear site in Syria.
A wild card in the equation is Israel’s own political situation. With parliamentary elections on the horizon, no leader in Jerusalem is a dove on Iran.
Last month, the U.N. Security Council voted to extend sanctions on Iran, but failed to add new strictures. Immediately after, Israeli Cabinet minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer charged that “the world has resigned itself to the fact that Iran is going to be a nuclear power. . . . This means only one thing: that we have to look out for ourselves.”
Patrick Clawson, a longtime Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes an Israeli strike on Iran would be received with gratitude in some capitals, provided it works. “Success would have a thousand fathers,” he said. “A lot of Arab countries would be pleased.”
Several Sunni Arab governments, especially the Persian Gulf states, openly worry that a nuclear Iran, a predominantly Shiite Muslim nation, would extend its growing regional influence.
In Israel, the issue of whether to strike first against Iranian nuclear facilities remains a steady topic of debate.
“I don’t know which direction this is going to go in Israel,” said Emily Landau, director of arms control and regional security programs at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank.
Although the “pressure is rising” domestically toward undertaking a unilateral attack, public sentiment is still in flux, Landau said. It could “move in the direction of more and more people in Israel concluding that a nuclear Iran is not something we can stop.”
Tehran has consistently said that its nuclear program is for peaceful power generation. And former U.S. and U.N. weapons inspector David Kay recently said in a speech that he thought it would be two to five years before Iran could produce enough fissile material for a bomb. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate last year said it would be possible but “highly unlikely” for Tehran to reach that goal by the end of 2009.
But some in Israel see a narrow window in which to act.
“Time is running very, very short right now,” said Ephraim Asculai, a former top official at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission who is now a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.
U.S. officials fear that an attack would trigger violent repercussions, most notably a wider regional conflict that would inevitably force the entry of American troops. Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he does not intend to get involved in another war when he has his hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan.
The global economic crisis only strengthens opposition. The ambassador of one Arab country predicted this week that the major powers would be unwilling to take any step that might drive the price of Iranian oil back up again.
An August report by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank that studies nuclear proliferation, said the dispersed nature of Iran’s nuclear facilities and the still-sketchy Western intelligence made it impossible for a single airstrike to succeed. “It would need multiple strikes against many sites,” the report concluded. “After such strikes, the attacker might still have little confidence that it had denied Iran the ability to produce weapon-grade uranium.”
Within Israel, there are rising voices against a unilateral attack.
“We can’t afford to lose wars here,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli analyst and director of Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Co.
Israel’s military establishment knows that an effective strike would be difficult, Javedanfar said, and could prompt a large and multi-pronged Iranian retaliation against Israel and against U.S. troops in Iraq.
“They’ll only support [an attack] if it would set Iran’s nuclear program back at least five if not 10 years and they could restrain the Iranian retaliation. Then it’s a viable option,” Javedanfar said.
The U.N.'s failure to impose tougher penalties probably signaled the end of a final U.S. push against Iran before President Bush leaves office.
Although Russia and China approved an extension of the ban on arms sales to Iran and a partial freeze of its assets overseas, they opposed additional measures.
In September, the Bush administration stepped up economic pressure outside the U.N. framework, blacklisting Iran’s national shipping line, eighteen of its affiliates and about 120 individual ships for allegedly cooperating with Tehran’s nuclear and missile development.
And last month, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against the Export Development Bank of Iran, charging that the government bank was an instrument supporting the country’s nuclear research program.
But in other ways, the level of activity and rhetoric from Washington has fallen noticeably in recent months.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in September that the U.S. continued to work with its allies to develop new ways to pressure Iran. But she did not promise that the group would complete the work before January.
“We’ll see,” she said.
Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in New York and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.
Ashraf Khalil reporting from jerusalem
Paul Richter reporting from washington