- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

Israel’s ambassador to Washington said yesterday that Iran and Syria are “playing with fire” and “will bear the consequences” if Hezbollah transfers two kidnapped Israeli soldiers to either of its patron nations.

Ambassador Daniel Ayalon did not rule out retaliatory strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, though other Israeli officials said that was not being planned.

Fears mounted that Israel’s military offensive against southern Lebanon could spread to other countries after Israeli officials said yesterday they had received indications that Hezbollah was trying to move two captive Israeli soldiers to Iran.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack also expressed concern that the soldiers could be moved out of Lebanon.

The department last night authorized the departure from Beirut of U.S. Embassy family members, as well as nonessential personnel.

Asked during a luncheon at the National Press Club whether Israel might respond to such a step with strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Mr. Ayalon said he did not want to discuss “operational details.”

But, he said, Iran and Syria both “are playing with fire and will bear the consequences” for any assistance they give Hezbollah in holding the two soldiers as hostages.

Another Israeli official said privately that there were no immediate plans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, although the country previously has hinted at such action and has armed itself with aircraft capable of mounting such a strike.

Israeli analysts suggested that Israel was more likely to strike next at Syria, which backs Hezbollah and hosts the Hamas leader blamed for the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted yesterday by the Iranian news agency as saying such action against Syria would be considered an assault on the whole Islamic world that would bring a “fierce response.”

Iran’s foreign ministry also dismissed suspicions that the soldiers would be brought there as “absurdities.”

Several analysts told The Washington Times that they thought Israeli officials were focusing on preventing Hezbollah from moving the soldiers within Lebanon or out of the country by bombing roads, bridges and airports and imposing a naval blockade.

“It’s premature to talk about military action against Syria and Iran,” one Israeli official said. “We don’t want the situation to escalate more than it already has.”

Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence official, said Israel was trying to determine how direct Iran’s and Syria’s involvement was in the attack.

“It’s really unlikely that they will directly attack Tehran right now, because they will respond in a tit-for-tat,” Mr. White said. “Israel’s done what it’s going to do for now, and it’s in a stage of waiting to see how Hezbollah will respond.”

Israeli Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Israel would take into account retaliatory threats to American targets when deciding whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

“This is a very difficult decision, and I don’t think that it should be made hastily, even with the urgency of the crisis that’s going on right now,” he said.

David Makovsky, also of the Washington Institute, said that an attack on Iranian interests in Lebanon is more likely than a strike on Iran.

“There is good reason to believe Tehran backed this, but there is no smoking gun yet,” he said.

Researchers say that about 30 sites in Iran are involved in producing and assembling nuclear components.

Israel does not have the ability to strike all 30, so it likely would concentrate on major targets, such as the Russian-made Bushehr reactor and Natanz underground enrichment site.

For years, Israel has been buying the American weapon systems it would need to disable Iran’s ample air defenses and strike multiple targets, including the Bushehr reactor on the Persian Gulf.

Ehud Yatom, member of the now-opposition Likud Party, said in 2003 that Iran’s “nuclear facilities must be destroyed, just as we did the Iraqi reactor.”

It was a reference to the 1981 successful strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor by two F-16s.

The Washington Times reported in 2004 that the Israeli air force had selected various flight plans for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Unlike the Osirak attack, in which the Israeli jets briefly crossed Jordan’s air space, this time perhaps scores of Israeli planes would have to cross broad stretches of Iraq. Israel likely would be forced to first notify the United States to ensure the planes are not shot down and to let U.S. commanders prepare for any Iranian counterattack.

Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace, said the latest crisis over the kidnapped soldiers should not be “mixed” with the nuclear issue.

“But if Hezbollah were to hand over the hostages to Iran, and Iran agreed to fly them to Iranian territory, it would be … Iran’s ultimate test of Israeli deterrence capability,” he said.

James Morrison, Katie Stuhldreher and Rowan Scarborough contributed to this article.

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