Sunday, August 27, 2006

JERUSALEM — Israel has appointed a top general to oversee a war against Iran, prompting speculation that it is preparing for possible military action against Tehran’s nuclear program.

Maj. Gen. Elyezer Shkedy, Israel’s air force chief, will be overall commander for the “Iran front,” military sources told the London Sunday Telegraph.

News of the appointment comes just days before a United Nations deadline expires for Iran to give up its nuclear program, which Western governments fear will be used to produce atomic weapons. Despite Iran’s offer last week to engage in “serious talks” on the matter, Israel fears even more than other Western nations that the offer is simply to buy time for Tehran to secure all the technology it needs to build the bomb.

“Israel is becoming extremely concerned now with what they see as Iran’s delaying tactics,” said Israeli Iran analyst Meir Javedanfar. “[The planners] think negotiations are going nowhere, and Iran is becoming a major danger for Israel. Now they are getting ready for living with a nuclear Iran or letting the military take care of it.”

The prospect of Israel “living with” a nuclear Iran appears remote. Last week, Giora Eiland, Israel’s former national security adviser, told reporters that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would “sacrifice half of Iran for the sake of eliminating Israel.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad “has a religious conviction that Israel’s demise is essential to the restoration of Muslim glory, that the Zionist thorn in the heart of the Islamic nations must be removed,” Mr. Eiland said.

Gen. Shkedy, who was appointed to the role two months ago, will coordinate intelligence gathered by Israel’s foreign spy agency Mossad and military sources, in order to draw up battle plans. Then, during any war with Iran, he will command the campaign from a “hot seat” in the Israeli army’s headquarters in Tel Aviv.

“It’s natural that Shkedy is nominated to this role, because the air force is Israel’s only force that can reach and sustain a military operation against Iran,” said Uri Dromi, a former air force colonel and military analyst.

“Everyone is playing with dates and time frames, but the list of options is becoming shorter,” he added. “I think we have one year open [to launch military action]. Israel will have to decide.”

Officially, Israel stresses that it does not want to take the lead in tackling Iran and that a massive campaign of air strikes would be best led by the United States, which has forces in Iraq that are much closer to Iranian targets.

Gen. Shkedy’s appointment to the Iran command role was made by Israel’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, in the run-up to this summer’s Lebanon war but emerged only last week.

Gen. Shkedy, 49, is the son of Holocaust survivors and has a picture in his office of an Israeli F-15 flying over Auschwitz.

The father of three makes no bones about the Iranian threat to Israel.

“Ahmadinejad is trying with all his might to reach a nuclear capability. There’s no argument about his intentions,” he said in an interview two months ago, about the time of his appointment.

“This … nuclear weaponry can come to constitute an existential threat to Israel and the rest of the world. My job is to maximize our capabilities in every respect. Beyond that, in this case, the less said the better.”

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