PRAGUE, 18 January 2006 (RFE/RL) – Israel cannot allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, the country's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said in the wake of Iran's decision, on 10 January, to resume research into uranium enrichment, a process used to create nuclear fuel or, at high levels of enrichment, for nuclear weapons.
Israel's president, Moshe Katsav, has also added his voice, warning on 16 January that Iran's nuclear program could be the first step in a process that could result in the leaking of nuclear material to extremist groups such as Hamas, Hizbullah, and Al-Qaeda.
Does this mean that Israel itself might take military action to put a halt to Iran's nuclear program? That possibility has been discussed increasingly since an 11 December report in the British newspaper "The Sunday Times" quoted unnamed Israeli military sources as saying that they had been ordered to be ready, by March 2006, to launch strikes on Iran's uranium-enrichment sites.
Diplomacy Still Favored
Aluf Benn, a correspondent for the Israeli daily "Haaretz," believes that the leak to "The Sunday Times" was part of a deliberate government attempt to force the United Nations Security Council to act on Iran rather than a signal of imminent military strikes.
"The Israeli position is that diplomacy is still the favored option of dealing with this threat rather than going for a military option," Benn says. "Given the deployment of American forces in the region -- especially in Iraq -- Israel just can't go it alone like it did against Iraq in 1981, when it destroyed a Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad. Therefore, deliberate leaks about preparations, I think, are meant more to prod the international community in its diplomatic efforts rather than to give hints about an impending attack."
A growing number of U.S. analysts, though, are convinced an attack on Iran by either the United States or Israel (or both) is inevitable. "It's very simple. Iran wants to get atomic bombs. Israel and the United States won't let that happen," says John Pike, director of a Washington-based website called GlobalSecurity.org that publishes analyses on international security issues. "And when the diplomatic track runs out -- I think sometime in the year 2007 -- the United States will launch air attacks to destroy Iran's nuclear and missile facilities."
Pike says Israel has the means and motive to carry out air strikes against Iran on its own as early as this year. But, he continues, "I think that there is a very low probability of the Israelis acting before the United States, because I think the United States and Israel share a common assessment of the state of Iran's [nuclear] program; namely, that it is premature to talk about military action this year. But 2007 to 2008 is basically the point at which…it would probably be too late to [take military action] effectively. So, I think that there would be a common assessment by Israel and by the United States that it needs to be done in 2007 -- and that the United States is the appropriate country to do it."
Most military analysts agree that a large-scale invasion of Iran by U.S. ground troops is unlikely -- particularly since so many U.S. troops are tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they would expect U.S. Special Forces or paramilitary officers in its secret service, the CIA, to infiltrate Iran before any air strikes in order to locate secret facilities.
An attack using both U.S. aircraft and missiles is the most likely scenario if diplomacy and economic sanctions fail, argues Ian Kemp, an independent London-based defense analyst. "I think if the United States was to decide upon military action [there would be] a combination of missile strikes using sea- and air-launched cruise missiles, and air strikes would probably be the preferred option. The United States has demonstrated quite clearly in recent years that it is has the capability to strike targets accurately and at a considerable distance."
Effective Air Strikes?
Pike is also confident of the efficacy of air strikes. He believes U.S. or Israeli forces could destroy all of Iran's main nuclear facilities within a matter of hours: "There are about half a dozen major nuclear facilities in Iran. They have the uranium facility at Isfahan, the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, the plutonium production facility at Arak, possibly a nuclear weapons assembly facility at Parchin. There may be a dozen, or a dozen and a half other smaller facilities. All of these facilities are vulnerable to air strikes. Stealth bombers and other [U.S.] bombers staging from Diego Garcia [an island in the Indian Ocean] would basically be able to destroy all of these within a few hours of the air strikes beginning."
But air strikes might not totally disrupt Iran's nuclear program. "If the Iranians are anticipating that the United States is going to [take] military action, no doubt they would disperse their technology to different facilities," says Kemp. "They would try to bury such facilities under the ground. And this, then, becomes far more difficult for the United States to guarantee complete success. I think it is virtually impossible to guarantee 100 percent success."
Another concern is that Iran might retaliate against limited air strikes by launching dozens of conventional missiles into Israel. That could escalate into a conflict that could possibly eventually draw in U.S. ground forces.
Analysts agree that world opinion would be decidedly against U.S. or Israeli military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities. But John Pike of Global Security.org says he thinks the U.S. administration is less concerned about world opinion than it is about the prospect of a nuclear capable Iran.
(RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan contributed to this report.)