Monday, October 13, 2003

JERUSALEM — Reports that Israel is preparing for pre-emptive air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities and is now able to fire nuclear missiles from submarines were seen as reflecting deep anxiety in Israel for Tehran’s nuclear program.

Israeli newspapers said officials appear to have leaked the reports in an attempt to focus the attention of the international community on the dangers of Iranian nuclear weapons development.

The German magazine Der Spiegel reported Saturday that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency had prepared detailed plans for attacking six nuclear facilities in Iran.

Any attack, according to the report, would be carried out by the Israeli air force, which in 1981 destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility just before it was to go on line. Der Spiegel quoted an Israeli pilot as saying such an attack would be “complex, yet manageable.”

Simultaneously, the Los Angeles Times, quoting Israeli and American officials, reported that Israel has modified nuclear warheads to fit U.S.-made Harpoon missiles aboard its submarines. This would give Israel a second-strike capability that could respond even if the country’s land facilities were obliterated.

Israeli officials denied the Los Angeles Times report yesterday, and nuclear experts expressed deep skepticism that it would even be possible to modify a Harpoon missile for a nuclear attack.

“Anyone with even the slightest understanding of missiles knows that the Harpoon can never be used to carry nuclear warheads,” former Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh told Army Radio.

“Not even [Israels] extraordinarily talented engineers and its sophisticated defense industries can transform the Harpoon into a missile capable of doing this. It’s simply impossible.”

Ted Hooton, editor of Jane’s Naval Weapon Systems in London, told the Associated Press that the weight of a nuclear payload would put the Harpoon out of balance, limiting its range and accuracy.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has demanded that Tehran open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the end of the month and make them available for spot checks. Three of Iran’s nuclear sites have never been inspected.

It was widely assumed in Israel that the stories were initiated by the Mossad as part of a campaign to keep the Iranian nuclear issue high on the international agenda.

“Heading off Iran’s attempt to attain nuclear capability is one of the Mossad’s main missions,” wrote analyst Aluf Benn in the Ha’aretz newspaper yesterday, “and the foreign media is one of the most important instruments utilized in this effort.”

Adding substance to this analysis was a report in the daily Ma’ariv yesterday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered the Mossad to devote most of its efforts to uncovering information about Iran’s nuclear program.

“Iran constitutes the biggest danger to Israel,” Mr. Sharon said, according to the newspaper. “We are coordinated on this with the U.S. down to the last detail.”

A former head of the Mossad, Shabtai Shavit, told Israel Radio that Iran is a threat because “it is ruled by clerics who act according to the word of God, not according to rational considerations.” Iranian leaders have frequently called for Israel’s destruction.

One of the principal reasons Israel acquired F-16 aircraft from the United States was that its range permits it to reach Iran, some 800 miles from Israel’s borders. Iran has warned that Israel would pay a very heavy price for any attack.

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