JERUSALEM – When Israel dispatched F-16 bombers almost 24 years ago to
destroy Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor in Osirak, the pilots knew they only
had to hit a single target. Were Israeli or U.S. planes to be sent today to
neutralize Iran's nuclear program, the mission would be far more complicated:
with Iranian facilities spread out, the pilots would have to strike targets
across the country, and none of them a large, clearly identifiable reactor.
Speaking last week, though, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was not ready to
rule out military action – by Israel. If Jerusalem became convinced, he said,
that "the Iranians had significant nuclear capability, given the fact that
Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel,
the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry
about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards."
Israeli leaders, extremely concerned by the prospect of a nuclear Iran, have
been less brazen. If Israel acted alone, "we will remain alone," Vice
Premier Shimon Peres said. "Everyone knows our potential, but we also have
to know our limits. As long as there is a possibility that the world will organize
to fight against Iran's nuclear option, let the world organize."
With the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discussing Iran's nuclear
activities, the rhetoric has become increasingly shrill. Israeli leaders have
long warned of what they see as the danger of Iran's nuclear program to the
entire region, and they are hoping the Americans will ultimately prevent Tehran
from getting the bomb.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told the Washington Post Sunday that he
could not see "how a military solution can resolve the Iran issue. In my
view, with Iran having almost self-sufficiency in the technology, the Iranians
will go underground … you might delay them, but they will rebuild it with
the objective of having a weapon."
Israeli intelligence officials estimate that Iran could be capable of producing
enriched uranium within six months and have nuclear weapons within two years.
Earlier this month, head of Israeli military intelligence Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi
said that while Iran was not currently capable of enriching uranium to build
a nuclear bomb, "it is only half a year away from achieving such independent
capability – if it is not stopped by the West."
Israeli officials have also accused Tehran of trying to dupe the international
community.. They believe Iran will try and stave off the threat of sanctions
while pushing ahead secretly with its efforts to attain nuclear weapons capability.
ElBaradei admitted Iran had "cheated" in the past about its nuclear
program, but said it was now "cooperating." The IAEA determined in
November that Iran was complying with an agreement to cease uranium enrichment.
For its part, Iran insists that its program has a purely civilian goal – the
production of electricity.
The European Union is urging Tehran to completely ditch its nuclear fuel program
to prove it is not seeking to produce atomic weapons. It is holding out a trade
accord as an incentive. But German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who along with
Britain and France is trying to engage Iran on the nuclear issue, said last
week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that "diplomatic
and political" means were required to persuade Tehran, not force.
As with Iraq, the United States has taken a far more hardline stance. Earlier
this month, President George W. Bush hinted at possible military action against
Iran. He said he hoped the issue could be resolved diplomatically, but that
he would "never take any option off the table."
In Jerusalem, officials interpreted Cheney's warning about a possible Israeli
military strike as a message to the Europeans to get tough on Iran. A senior
Israeli official was quoted as saying that Cheney's remarks were "intended
to tell the Europeans: 'If you don't take a greater role in a policy of implementing
sanctions and moving vigorously to stop Iran's nuclear program, then we are
not responsible for what Israel will do.'"
Ze'evi said he has been trying to explain the magnitude of the Iranian nuclear
threat to European countries. "The Iranians can reach Portugal with nuclear
weapons," he said. "This doesn't worry the Europeans. They tell me
that during the Soviet regime as well they were under a nuclear threat, and
I try to explain to them that Iran is a different story."
Some observers in Israel argue that a nuclear Iran would be less of a threat
to Israel than to other countries in the region. They point to reports that
Israel possesses a submarine-based second-strike capability.
Arab countries blame Israel for spurring nuclear aspirations in the Middle
East. The Jewish state is believed to be the only Middle East country with nuclear
arms, although it neither denies nor confirms its possession of such weapons
– a policy that has been dubbed "nuclear ambiguity." Israel has between
100 and 200 nuclear warheads, according to foreign reports.
Israel's atomic secrets were exposed for the first time almost 20 years ago
by Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at the nuclear plant in Dimona in the south
of the country. Vanunu, who was released from jail last year after serving an
18-year term for treason, handed information in 1986 to the Sunday Times
in London about Israel's nuclear program He was later kidnapped by Israeli agents
in Rome and smuggled to Israel to stand trial.
Dr. Shmuel Bar, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in
Herzliya near Tel Aviv says the chances of Israeli military action are low.
"If we act unilaterally, we will be blamed, the Iranians will react, and
we will not get public American backing," he told IPS. Israel, he added,
must not turn the Iranian nuclear issue into an Israeli problem. "It is
first and foremost an American problem."
The United States cannot accept a nuclear Iran which would be able to "dictate
its positions in the Gulf and in Iraq," says Bar. He foresees disagreement
between Europe and the United States, leading ultimately to unilateral American
action. "There could be an oil embargo on Iran with the American Sixth
Fleet blocking passage [of Iranian vessels] in the Gulf."
A growing number of experts now argue that a military option no longer exists
because Iran has spread its nuclear facilities across the country and has not
concentrated them in one place, as was the case in Iraq. There have also been
reports of Tehran setting up dummy nuclear facilities.
A single air strike, therefore, would be insufficient to knock out Iran's program.
What is more, Israel is aware that Tehran would likely respond, possibly with
This might explain why some in the United States today talk of regime change
in Iran, rather than of military action. It is also questionable whether Bush,
mired in Iraq, has the appetite for another major military escapade.
But Shmuel Bar does not rule out the possibility of U.S. military action. "Bush
is an ideological president, and he isn't going to be running for a third term,"
(Inter Press Service)