Iran has handed over its long-awaited response to the West's offer of incentives to halt its suspected nuclear weapons programme, after a warning by one of its top military leaders that any strike against it would trigger war.
Details were not immediately disclosed of what Iran called a "constructive and creative" response to an offer by the US, Britain, Russia, China, Germany and France of a deal under which Iran would halt uranium enrichment in return for an agreement to ease sanctions and allow Tehran to continue developing civil nuclear power.
Before the response, however, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Mohammed Jafari, was quoted by the Iranian state news agency as saying: "Iran's response to any military action will make the invaders regret their decision and action." Mr Jafari had already warned that if attacked, Iran would launch a barrage of missiles at Israel and close the Strait of Hormuz, the outlet for oil tankers leaving the Persian Gulf.
That in turn followed a declaration by Admiral James Winnefeld, the commander of the US Sixth Fleet, that the launch of missiles by Iran against Israel was "by far the most likely employment of ballistic missiles in the world today, and it demands our immediate attention in the event of a need for a US or Nato response".
Admiral Winnefeld's remarks also underlined the likelihood that Western powers could well be drawn into what US officials have predicted could be a unilateral strike by Israel against Iran if Tehran fails to bow to international pressure to halt uranium enrichment. Speculation that Israel could be prepared to launch its own strike if Iran did not yield to diplomatic pressure was reinforced this week by US defence officials telling ABC News that it might do so within a year.
Israel has remained largely silent in response to the report.
The unnamed US officials suggested that Israel's two "red lines" would be the enrichment by Iran of enough uranium at its Natanz plant to produce nuclear weapons; and the acquisition of the SA 20 air-defence system which Iran is seeking from Russia and which could make a strike against it even more difficult.
That report in turn followed the disclosure two weeks ago, also by US officials, that Israel had deployed about 100 F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers in a major exercise over Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, which was widely seen as a trial run for a possible military operation against Iran.
The latest stirrings about possible Israeli unilateral action have been tied to a growing perception in Israel that the US is unlikely to launch a military strike on Iran in the closing months of a weakened George Bush presidency. This was underlined when the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, said on Thursday: "This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don't need it to be more unstable."
Shaul Mofaz, a member of the Israeli cabinet and a former military chief of staff and defence minister, created a political stir in Israel last month by declaring the day after the exercise ended in early June that "if Iran continues with its programme for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack".
Israel is thought to be more concerned about the reinforcement that a nuclear Iran would give to its influence in the region and to groups allied with it – such as Hizbollah in Lebanon – than about an actual nuclear strike on Israel. A senior Israeli diplomat briefed journalists in London on Thurrsday on the threat to the broader Middle East region if Iran became a nuclear power and was therefore able to exercise regional hegemony.
Arguing that the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, was strongly against any military strike by the US, the eminent defence analyst of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Amir Oren, said yesterday that the Israeli appraisal that the prospect of such a strike was "non existent" would encourage those who believe the Israeli military "must be dispatched to the east".
This continued a vigorous debate in the Israeli media this week about Israel's readiness for unilateral action against Iran. Major-General Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, a hawkish former head of military intelligence, acknowledged that Iran would probably respond with long-range missiles to any Israeli attack and that Hizbollah could well come to its support "with its 40,000 rockets, and Syria might as well". But, he added: "In my judgement, the price that Israel will pay then will be far less painful than the price that it will be forced to pay if the Iranians obtain a nuclear bomb."
Alex Fishman, a military analyst on Israel's largest newspaper, Yedhiot Arhronot, believes the US is "using Israel for intimidation". But, he wrote this week: "The problem is that threats of this type have a dynamic of their own, and they may yet be self-fulfilling."
Professor Uzi Arad, a former director of intelligence at Mossad, said yesterday that last month's exercise by Israel, at considerable cost, showed it was serious about a military option in the last resort. While an escalation was "not inevitable," Professor Arad said, it was not necessary to attack nuclear targets in order to deter Iran's nuclear weapons programme. Military installations and airfields, for example, could also be attacked, he suggested.
The military operation in Iran
The main focus of any Israeli strike would be Iran's nuclear facilities. US and British defence officials say the attacks would also seek to neutralise other military facilities in an attempt to prevent Tehran from retaliating immediately. In particular, they would concentrate on the sites of Shahab-3B missiles that have a range of up 1,250 miles and the capability to hit Israel. The Americans may also want the Israelis to destroy Shahab-2s, which have a shorter range of about 200 miles but pose a danger to US ships in the Gulf and troops in Iraq. Other targets could include the naval facility at Bandar Abbas and command and control centres in and around Tehran. Many of the Iranian nuclear facilities such as Bushehr and especially Natanz are protected by concrete bunkers. Destroying them would require up to 100 bunker-busting bombs to be used in synchronised and complex operations.
Israel's military exercise in the Mediterranean last month was widely seen as a dress rehearsal for Iran. It involved 100 F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers, refuelling tankers and helicopters flying about 1,450 km, about the same distance as to the Iranian uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. The northern route, overflying Turkey, is the most logical one for for Israel. An alternative route would be via the south, avoiding the Saudi land mass and approaching Iran over the ocean. But that is longer and more hazardous.
The US is reported to be running covert operations in Iran funded by $400m (£200m) siphoned from other programmes, and run by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command. They involve support for the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups as well as other dissident organisations. The Iranians have complained for a long time that bomb attacks in its territory are being organised by US and British forces in Iraq, a charge both countries have denied. An Israeli air operation could be augmented by attacks carried out on the ground.
Risks to the Israelis
The Israelis destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. That was, however, just one site and the Iraqis were taken by surprise. Destroying Iran's nuclear facilities is a much more complex business. The mission is not only likely to provoke retaliation from President Ahmadinejad (left), with measures such as disruption of oil traffic through the Gulf – but also carries the risk of Israeli pilots being shot down and/or taken prisoner.