As Iran rattles sabers, Israel considers options


JERUSALEM — Though hardly unexpected, Iran’s recently announced capacity to produce enriched uranium and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s latest call for Israel’s destruction have sent shock waves through Israel’s defense and political establishments.

But Israeli leaders are deliberately playing down their public response. Analysts say they don’t want to be perceived as leading the international campaign against Iranian nuclear weapons or give the impression that Iran’s quarrel is primarily with Israel, rather than with the West as a whole.

Nevertheless, the decision-makers are extremely concerned on two counts: the threat of a fanatical Iranian government actually using a nuclear device against Israel, or providing a nuclear umbrella for aggression and terrorism.

While Israel isn’t taking the lead for now, its leaders say they’re determined to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear-weapons capability.

“Israel will not tolerate Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared recently. If all else fails, that could mean Israel acting on its own to pre-empt an Iranian bomb.

Israeli generals take the Iranian threat at face value.

“Ahmadinejad’s vision is to wipe Israel out, and he means what he says,” the military’s deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, declared in a weekend interview with Yediot Achronot.

Commenting on Ahmadinejad’s latest statement that “Israel is a dried-up, rotten tree that will be destroyed by a single storm,” Ha’aretz wrote in an editorial, “It is not Ahmadinejad’s style that is troubling, but rather what is behind it — for the storm the president of Iran is promising might be a nuclear one.”

Even if the Iranians don’t put their own survival at risk by attempting to attack Israel, their possession of a nuclear bomb would radically alter the balance of power in the Middle East. Giora Eiland, head of Israel’s National Security Council, argues that every crisis would be played out “under the shadow of the Iranian bomb” — a fact that could severely limit Israel’s freedom of action against terrorists.

For example, Eiland asks, if the Iranian-backed, Lebanese-based Hezbollah were to launch a heavy rocket attack across the northern border, would Israel dare escalate its response?

Other generals suggest Israel’s hands also could be tied in the battle against Palestinian terrorism, for example in retaliating against Kassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials are convinced Iran is determined to push ahead with its military nuclear program, regardless of Western efforts to forestall it. So why should the Iranians provoke the West and jeopardize their program by making public statements about a technological breakthrough in uranium enrichment?

According to Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, chief of Israeli military intelligence, the Iranians are trying to create the impression that their argument with the international community on the principle of enrichment is over, and that it’s pointless to try to impose technological restrictions.

“They are trying to move the debate to the next phase: the extent of enrichment,” Yadlin says.

If the Iranians are allowed to press ahead, Yadlin expects they’ll be able to produce a nuclear bomb “around the end of the decade.” According to Yadlin, Iran needs six months to complete its research on uranium enrichment; two years to build a large centrifuge plant to produce enriched uranium in industrial quantities; and another year to produce enough uranium for a nuclear bomb.

That estimate doesn’t take into account suspected clandestine programs that may be further advanced than Iran’s small, experimental centrifuge enrichment plant at Natanz.

Unconfirmed reports suggest the Iranians might have a secret program using far more advanced P-2 centrifuges, purchased through Pakistan’s rogue nuclear expert, Abdul Qadeer Khan. If so, the timetable could be significantly accelerated.

Given the enormity of the threat, what does Israel intend to do about it? For now, it seems the Israeli government will go along with international diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, even though they don’t believe the diplomatic road has any real chance of success.

Ultimately, Israeli officials believe that only the threat or use of force will deter Iran. And though many doubt that the U.S. will take military action, others point out that Washington has not taken any option off the table.

The Israeli defense establishment is convinced there’s a military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, even though it would be risky and logistically complex.

To be effective, a military strike would have to be directed at many different targets simultaneously — nuclear installations, command-and-control centers, airfields and missile sites. Israeli officials acknowledge that the United States is much better equipped to handle an operation of this nature, but they do not rule out the possibility of Israel going it alone if need be.

During a February visit to Washington, Kaplinsky reportedly discussed the Iranian situation with American defense officials. According to American media reports, subsequently denied in Israel, he pressed the United States to take military action.

But Kaplinsky acknowledges that Israel has long-standing contingency plans of its own. These include the Arrow anti-missile defense system to keep Iranian missiles out and an offensive capacity to hit targets deep inside Iranian territory.

In an address at the Washington-based Hudson Institute in early March, Israel’s former military chief of staff, reserve Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, spelled it out: Israel has the military capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations and set its nuclear weapons plans back by several years, he declared.

But if diplomatic efforts fail, would Israel or the United States really consider force?

The United States could be deterred by Iranian threats to strike at exposed U.S. forces in Iraq and to conduct a worldwide campaign of terrorism against Western targets, or by skyrocketing oil prices.

Would Israel be prepared to attack Iran on its own, given the potential regional and global consequences?

The Iranians seem to be betting that neither Israel nor the United States will be ready to take the chance. But like Saddam Hussein, they could be miscalculating.