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Israeli hawks circle Iran's N-plants

London Telegraph | August 11, 2005
By Tim Butcher

Ever since its 1979 Islamic revolution the only fate Iran has had in mind for Israel has been simple: its destruction. Now that Teheran seems to be moving towards acquiring its own nuclear arsenal, its plans for its great enemy threaten to be both fiery and radioactive.

Sometimes Iran's stated policy towards Israel is couched in inflammatory rhetoric, like that on a 40ft banner that used to hang outside the entrance of the foreign ministry in Teheran bearing the message: "Israel Must Burn".

Sometimes the language is tamer, such as the "Down With Israel" chants of students who march after Friday prayers in Teheran week in, week out.

But whatever the tone, the message remains the same. The Jewish state has survived wars, internal upheaval, intifadas and bloody entanglements in the internal affairs of its neighbours. But now a major enemy, one committed to its annihilation, appears close to deploying the most destructive force known to Man.

"Having the ayatollah regime armed with nuclear weapons is an existential threat to the state of Israel," Mark Regev, senior spokeman at its foreign ministry, admitted grimly. "We take the issue extremely seriously.''

But while the danger Israel faces is clear, what it should do about the threat poses much more of a quandary.

Some Israelis cite the precedent of the 1981 unilateral Israeli airstrike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. Israel, they argue, should do the same again and launch pre-emptive military attacks on Iran's growing nuclear infrastructure.

But Iran has developed its nuclear programme with such a scenario in mind. It has deliberately spread its facilities far and wide, using nine locations, according to one intelligence source.

And each facility is buried under tons of reinforced concrete, making it more difficult to destroy, even with the help of the BLU-109 "bunker-buster" bombs the US is selling its closest Middle Eastern ally.

Iran, moreover, is further away from Israel than Iraq, raising even greater doubts about the ability of the F15 and F16 planes Israel would use in any air raids to reach their target and then make it home without being refuelled.

And there is also the question of how the aircraft would get close enough to hit their targets. The US controls Iraqi airspace but it seems inconceivable that Washington would open it up to Israeli combat jets and tankers.

While the problems facing air strikes are significant, Israel's military nevertheless believes it has the means to cause serious damage to the Iranian nuclear capability.

Israel's cruise missiles, launched from planes or submarines, give the country a capability that it did not have in 1981 when it attacked the Iraqi reactor with a conventional bombing sortie.

"It's a bit more challenging in Iran but the military option remains a real one," said David Ivri, a retired Israeli air force officer who commanded Operation Opera, the attack on Iraq's reactor.

"After all, the aim would not be to neutralise the Iranian nuclear programme. That would be impossible. But what we could do is delay it considerably.

"That was our aim in Iraq and that is what we achieved - a very long delay.''

The calculation Israel must make is a simple one: when will Iran become a nuclear power?

The Iraq attack was launched only when Israel's intelligence concluded that Saddam Hussein's regime was within a year of producing its own nuclear weapons.

It also followed a lengthy diplomatic campaign by Israel to dissuade France from selling nuclear technology to Iraq. When that failed, Mossad agents blew up components due to be shipped to Iraq at a warehouse in France.

Only when it was clear that Iraq's nuclear programme continued did Operation Opera get the green light.

According to a senior figure in the Israeli Defence Force quoted in the Jerusalem Post, Iran will not be able to produce a nuclear bomb until 2008 at the earliest; 2012 is a more realistic date and experts believe that the current situation is insufficiently acute to warrant military action.

"The best-case scenario for Israel is that the negotiations between Iran and the European Union succeed," said Emily Landau, senior research associate at the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "And at the moment that is still the most likely possibility.

"If you look at the wording of every statement by Iran, they sound defiant but always include some sort of reference to the talks and the possibility of some sort of new initiative. As long as this sort of language continues, then a full-blown crisis can be avoided."

This would suit Israel, which backs the negotiations and wants to avoid turning the current crisis into a row between Iran and itself.

As long as international negotiators are taking the lead, Israel is happy to stay on the sidelines.

And there is one important factor at play: it is one of the Middle East's worst kept secrets that Israel has the nuclear bomb. Iran certainly knows this and it will have a clear deterrent effect.

The result is that Israel might not need to take pre-emptive military action against Iran - if only because Teheran would never use a nuclear weapon against Israel for fear of itself being attacked, and annihilated, by the Jewish state's nuclear arsenal.


Last modified August 14, 2005




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