The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, dramatically raised the stakes in the international showdown with Iran last night, with a clear warning that his country was prepared to use military force to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"The Jewish people, with the scars of the Holocaust fresh on its body, cannot afford to allow itself to face threats of annihilation once again," Mr Olmert said in a speech to a high-level security conference in Herzliya. "No nation has the right even to consider its position. It is the obligation of every country to act against this will all its might." "We can stand up against nuclear threats and even prevent them," he said.
Israeli military officials warned this week that Israel – acting alone or in coordination with the US – could launch preemptive military strikes against Iran before the end of this year.
Israel describes Iran’s nuclear programme as an “existential threat” to the Jewish state which should be stopped before Iranian scientists manage to produce a nuclear bomb. There is particular concern because of statements by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threatening to wipe Israel from the map. But Israeli and western experts say that even without the firebrand Mr Ahmadinejad, who is currently in political difficulties, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, has made it clear that the Iranians will not back down from their confrontation with the West over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The Israeli officials say that action should be taken to stop Iran before it reaches the “point of no return” in progressing towards the possible production of a nuclear bomb. They are referring to the moment when Iran, which announced last year that it is capable of enriching uranium to the 5% necessary for nuclear energy, is able to overcome technical problems with centrifuges used in the process so that they can run on a sustainable basis. Once that happens, Iran would be theoretically capable of enriching uranium to the 90% required for a nuclear weapon, depending on the number of centrifuges. Iran continues to insist, however, that its intentions are peaceful.
Nuclear researcher Gary Samore, director of studies at the US council on Foreign Relations, told the Herzliya conference that Iran was still years away from being able to manufacture a bomb.
Israel – the only Middle East power with nuclear weapons - has long made it clear that it will not allow Iran to have a nuclear bomb. Reports that Iran is close to the “point of no return” towards building a bomb have caused widespread alarm throughout the Middle East, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and most recently, Jordan, warning that they could embark on “peaceful” nuclear programmes, triggering fears of a nuclear arms race in the tinderbox region. Israeli officials – who admit there is an internal debate on how to respond to what could be a bluff – expect a triumphant announcement next month or in March that Iran has mastered the centrifuge technology, confirming Tehran as the regional superpower.
In a further significant development, thanks to Iran’s deep engagement in Iraq, there is now an open rift between the majority Sunni branch of Islam and and the Shiites. Israelis now boast that the “moderate” Arab Sunni states, who feel threatened by the newly empowered Iran and its regional reach through its Shia allies, are cooperating with Israel out of a new-found confluence of interests.
A senior British military source said yesterday that the Israelis were serious about the use of military force to stop Iran, and were now engaged in preparing public opinion for such a prospect. “They’re watering the turf. The Iranians are not under enough pressure,” the source said.
One theory is that Israel, which is disappointed at the impact of limited UN economic sanctions and the slow process through the United Nations which is out of step with the accelerated pace of Iran’s nuclear research, aims to heighten pressure on Iran to halt enrichment in line with UN demands, by invoking the military threat. However, the British source said, “the trouble with talking about military action is that you actually end up bombing.”
Israeli officials who spoke to the Independent this week refused to go into details about the possible catastrophic regional fallout from military strikes, although one source said that if they were restricted to Iran’s Natanz facility where its centrifuges are known to be enriching uranium, “there would be headlines in the papers for two days.”
But any military campaign would provoke retaliation by Iran which is expected to reactivate its Hezbollah allies on the border with Israel, who according to officials here have been rearming with missiles since the end of the summer campaign. The 140,000 American troops inside Iraq could be significant targets of the Iranians. Syria could also be drawn into a wider war, although the Israelis believe that both Syria and Russia would remain on the sidelines.
Other questions concern the Bush administration’s appetite for another war, already bogged down in Iraq and facing calls from the Democrat-led Congress for a phased withdrawal.
And the strength of the Israeli armed forces would be further tested after their flawed campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon. “The IDF are not as good as they think they are,” said the British source. “It’s an army of conscripts, commanded by reserve officers. Do you want to send conscripts into a war for the national interest?”
Some analysts say that in any case, miitary strikes would be counter-productive as they would only delay, and not stop, Iran's nuclear programme.