Israel pushes U.S. on Iran nuke solution

Israel has been privately pressing Washington to solve the Iran nuclear problem in a hint that Tel Aviv may be left with no choice but to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, defense officials say.

Military analysts say the United States “would have no problem” taking out Iran’s major nuclear facilities should it decide to launch a pre-emptive strike.

The defense officials say Israel isn’t putting its concerns about Iran in the form of a “you attack or we do” ultimatum to the United States. But they said senior Israeli officials often have raised the Iran problem during visits to Washington in the past 18 months.

Tel Aviv’s concerns are one reason the Bush administration in the past year has ratcheted up its rhetoric and its intelligence collection on Iran’s clandestine program to build nuclear weapons, including surveillance flights by unmanned U.S. planes.

The officials said they think President Bush, who has adopted a policy of pre-emption to prevent terrorists from obtaining atomic arms, is on a course to take military action before he leaves office in 2009.

One U.S. option is air strikes, unless Iran’s Islamist rulers renounce nuclear weapons and allow intrusive inspections. The United States has designated Iran as a terror-sponsoring state, and Mr. Bush has labeled it part of an “axis of evil.”

“He doesn’t have any choice,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a military analyst. “He understands [the Iranians] are the king of terror right now. They are striving for nuclear weapons that can get into the hands of terrorists, and then it’s too late.”

The Washington Times reported in 2003 that Israel had developed options for bombing Iran’s nuclear sites.

Members of the Israeli parliament publicly have called for pre-emptive strikes now, which Tel Aviv used in 1981 to take out a nuclear reactor being built for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But the greater distances and the more mature Iranian program mean any Israeli mission would be far tougher than the one-target strike on the Osiraq plant.

Iran has developed a ballistic missile, the Shahab III, capable of reaching Israel. A secret Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, estimates Iran will have nuclear weapons before the end of this decade. Israel has a nuclear arsenal of about 85 warheads, the DIA states.

Vice President Dick Cheney raised the Israeli attack scenario on Inauguration Day back in January during an interview with radio host Don Imus.

Said Mr. Cheney: “One of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked, that if, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards.”

The vice president added, “You look around the world at potential trouble spots — Iran is right at the top of the list.”

The United States’ increased intelligence collection includes the CIA’s operating Predator spy drones over suspected nuclear sites for the past year — an operation first reported by The Washington Post. A defense source said the Predator has special sensors that analyze the air to detect radiation levels consistent with uranium enrichment.

The U.S. intelligence community does not think Iran has produced a nuclear weapon because it lacks the needed fissile material — either weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.

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