/ 8 December 2007

Israel not ruling out unilateral strike on Iran

Senior Israeli officials warned on Friday that they were still considering a military strike against Iran, despite a fresh United States intelligence report that concluded Tehran was no longer developing nuclear weapons.

Although Israel says it wants strong diplomatic pressure put on Iran, it is reluctant to rule out the threat of a unilateral attack. Matan Vilnai, Israel’s Deputy Defence Minister, told Army Radio on Friday: ”No option needs to be off the table.”

Avigdor Lieberman, the hard-right Deputy Prime Minister, said Israel should be ready to act if sanctions did not work. ”If they don’t, we will sit and decide whatever we have to decide,” he told the Jerusalem Post in an interview on Friday.

Several of Israel’s Iran experts say the American rethink on the threat posed by Iran has ruled out a US military strike and probably an Israeli strike too, at least for now. But Israel’s political hawks continue to keep the threat of action alive.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the popular right-wing opposition leader, was asked whether Israel should launch its own military operation. ”We always prefer international action, led by the United States, but we have to ensure that we can protect our country with all means,” he told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on Friday.

The repercussions of the US intelligence assessment are consuming Israeli politicians, analysts and the press. Although Israeli leaders had been briefed in advance, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which was declassified and published on Monday, brought surprise and frustration in Israel’s defence establishment.

In a shift from earlier assessments, the NIE said Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in autumn 2003 and had not restarted it. US intelligence agencies said they did not know whether Iran intended to build nuclear weapons.

Israeli officials quickly offered a direct challenge. Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, said although Iran’s nuclear programme was halted in 2003, ”as far as we know it has probably since revived it”.

It is, however, far from clear whether Israel has unique intelligence on Iran strong enough to contradict the American findings. Ha’aretz noted in an analysis on Friday: ”It wasn’t in the intelligence arena that Israel suffered a blow this week, but rather in the public opinion arena.”

Unilateral strike

Some have suggested that with Israel feeling isolated by its hard-line stance on Iran, it might be more inclined to launch a unilateral military strike and a comparison is frequently drawn to Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.

David Albright, a former United Nations nuclear inspector, said this week if Israel felt its ”red line” had been crossed, it might strike. ”They may force a military confrontation,” he told The Associated Press.

However, it is widely assumed that Israel would need US approval, if not cooperation, for a bombing mission. In particular, its air force would need the US flight codes that would allow its planes to cross into Iran. When Israel requested those codes in 1991 to attack Iraq during the first Gulf War, the US refused and there was no Israeli strike.

Yet Israel, the only nuclear power in the region, is not shy of acting alone and has been heartened by the lack of censure over its bombing raid in northern Syria in September, which may or may not have targeted a Syrian nuclear installation.

Israel’s Iran experts argue that the US intelligence assessment did not wholly exonerate Tehran — they point to evidence of a continued enriched uranium programme that has only limited civilian use — but they admit that for now an Israeli military operation is unlikely.

”I think it is quite unrealistic to think Israel will go it alone against Iran in a military way,” said Ephraim Asculai, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He said it appears Iran would respond to a tougher sanctions regime that convinced Tehran that the cost of its nuclear ambitions outweighed the benefits.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst based in Tel Aviv, said there is also a chance Israel might pursue a peace agreement with Syria in an effort to divide Damascus from Tehran and further isolate Iran. ”The quickest route to isolate Iran is through Damascus,” he said. — Guardian Unlimited Â