Pentagon: Israel Increasingly Likely to Attack Iran

Amos Harel
Haaretz Correspndent, Agencies
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Amos Harel
Haaretz Correspndent, Agencies

The U.S. Defense Department thinks it is increasingly likely that Israel will attack Iran's nuclear facilities by the end of this year.

An ABC News report quoted unidentified senior Pentagon sources yesterday saying that Washington was concerned Iran would strike both the United States and Israel in retaliation. One official said such an Israeli attack would have far reaching security and economic consequences, and the U.S. would be accused of cooperating with the Israeli strike.

The ABC News report was just the most recent in a series of media revelations on the possibility that Israel would use force to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

Previous reports included Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz's comments on the matter, reported in the New York Times and never denied by Israel, on a large military exercise the Israeli Air Force conducted last month in preparation for such an attack on Iran.

There was even a day filled with rumors and false reports of an actual Israeli attack that drove down world markets and pushed up oil prices.

In the middle of all this, Iran revealed it had sentenced to death one of its citizens accused of being an Israeli spy for collecting information on Iran's nuclear plans.

The increasing media interest all over the globe in a possible Israeli attack can be explained by the convergence of a number of issues coming to a head in a short period. According to reports from the Israeli defense establishment, Iran will cross the "technological threshold" - the point when it will be able to independently produce nuclear weapons - in a year and a half to two years.

In addition, the U.S. election campaign will soon enter its final phase, and even if the next administration - whoever its leader may be - is no less supportive of Israel than the present Bush administration, it is clear that its first year will be dedicated more to learning the complex international issues than to actually dealing with them.

In the background, the effects are still being felt of the American intelligence community's report from last December stating that Iran had suspended its military nuclear weapons program. President George W. Bush, in his recent talks with Israel, expressed serious doubts about the conclusions.

But the common opinion among Israeli politicians and the defense establishment is that Bush will find it difficult to initiate an American attack on Iran in light of the wide-scale opposition in the public and the Congress, as well as in parts of the U.S. defense establishment.

This leaves the possibility of an attack on Iran solely in Israel's hands. As far as is known, no decisions have yet been made, but the direction is much clearer than in previous years. It is worth remembering Ehud Olmert's comments to Bush at the end of their meeting in the White House a month ago. He said that every day that passes brings us closer to the solution to the Iranian nuclear problem.

What Bush and Olmert tell each in in private no one else knows, but it certainly sounds like a hint to their discussion of a "green light" on the military option.

The Air Force exercise, the second in half a year, should also be viewed as an attempt to improve the IDF's preparedness for such an attack. Israel is broadcasting that all its options are still open, and is also informing the U.S. that it is serious. Such firmness might also help advance U.S. willingness to support such an attack, as Israel would need quite a bit of assistance from the Americans if it decides to attack: from coordination of flight paths - due to the U.S. presence in Iraq - along with intelligence, and also bombs that could penetrate the Iranian facilities deep underground.

Last week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, visited Israel and met with the heads of the Israeli defense establishment.

ABC News quoted the U.S. defense official as saying that two "red lines" would prompt Israel to strike Iran. The first trigger would be when enough highly enriched uranium is produced at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility to create a nuclear bomb, which U.S. and Israeli assessments predict to occur by the end of this year or by the middle of 2009.

The U.S. State Department criticized the comments on the likelihood Israel would attack Iran over its nuclear program. "I have no information that would substantiate that, and I think it's rather foolish of people who often have no clue what they're talking about to assert things and not even have the courtesy to do so on the basis of their name," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in response to the report.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, "I don't comment for Israel," when asked about the ABC News report.

"We are going to address the concerns that we have with Iran diplomatically, and with international organizations that can bring some pressure to bear on this issue," he said. "That is the focus of the U.S. effort."

The key question relates to the ability of Israel's leadership to make decisions in the present political - and criminal - situation. From what has been allowed to be reported about last year's attack on the Syrian installations, it seems that Olmert was willing to take a large personal risk in response to a goal he viewed as essential.

The General Staff also feels a similar obligation, and it is enough to see how many senior officers, particularly from the Air Force, have photos from the Auschwitz flyover on their walls, alongside other reminders of the Holocaust.

The so-called Begin Doctrine, which states that Israel will prevent with force if necessary, the introduction of nuclear weapons by enemy countries, was used against the Iraqi reactor in 1981, and also against the Syrians.

The international community made peace with the Israeli attacks, twice, since its actions did not cause a war that threatened oil markets.

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