- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

JERUSALEM

By now, the script is alarmingly familiar — a Middle Eastern nation boasting ambiguous nuclear ambitions and led by a belligerent president bitterly opposed to Israel.

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be the latest regional leader to torment Israel and the West with fears of nuclear Armageddon and agonizing choices about how to respond. But he is not the first. A quarter-century ago, it was Saddam Hussein.

Against Iraq, Israel took matters into its own hands in 1981 and bombed the French-built Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad. The attack set a precedent for the Atomic Age: the use of pre-emptive military strikes to prevent enemies from obtaining nuclear weapons.

But was it successful? And, 25 years later, would Israel attempt an attack against Iran to try to stop it from building a bomb? The dilemmas facing the West and Israel are, if anything, more acute today than they were on June 7, 1981, when eight Israeli F-16s bombed the Iraqi reactor and returned safely to Israel.

Iran has insisted that its nuclear research is for peaceful purposes.

Although U.S. intelligence estimates that it will be four to 10 years before Tehran can produce a bomb, the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran is felt keenly in Israel.

In recent months, Mr. Ahmadinejad repeatedly has called for Israel’s destruction and denied that the Nazi Holocaust occurred. He has said Israel must be “wiped off the map,” called the Jewish state a “fake regime” and urged that Israeli Jews be resettled in Europe.

Israel says Iran is the most serious threat faced by Jews since the Holocaust, has denounced Mr. Ahmadinejad as a “psychopath” and warns that if Tehran gets the bomb, other Middle East countries will seek to do the same.

“Since Hitler, we have not faced such a threat,” Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said last month on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It is not clear whether Israel’s warnings reflect a readiness to carry out a military strike against Iran, or are aimed at pressing the United States and Europe into aggressive action.

Whatever the case, Israel’s military options may be far more limited than they were 25 years ago, former Israeli military officials and airmen suggest. In a sense, what stands in the way of a pre-emptive strike on Iran are the lessons of Israel’s experience in striking Iraq, which Iran has heeded.

Tehran has spread out its nuclear facilities, put them underground and reinforced them against conventional attack — all measures that, short of using tactical nuclear weapons, would “make it difficult as a military, operational matter to take out something, let alone set it back appreciably,” said Paul Pillar, who served in the CIA for 28 years and oversaw intelligence assessments about the Middle East from 2000 to 2005.

“It’s a pity — the situation is so different today. It was so simple then,” said Ze’ev Raz, now 58, the lead Israeli pilot in the Osirak attack.

Retired Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, former head of strategic planning, thinks Israeli warplanes can hit a few targets in Iran, but they cannot destroy its nuclear weapons program nor stall it for any significant length of time.

“It is very difficult to find in the Iranian nuclear program one vulnerable point that, once it is attacked and destroyed, the Iranian program is stopped or stalled for a long time,” Gen. Brom wrote in a report last year on military options for dealing with Iran.

His report also said Israel’s military and intelligence communities were divided over whether Iran poses a threat. Some officials view Iran as a hostile ideological foe determined to destroy Israel, while others see Tehran as preoccupied with national defense and political survival.

These shortcomings and uncertainties reportedly have not stopped Israel from making preparations for war with Iran, however.

Although any Israeli attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities would enjoy “vast” public support at home, Gen. Brom said, it would have profound implications for Israel’s standing abroad, because Israel is an undeclared nuclear power. Unlike Iran, it has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, nor is it part of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s nuclear weapons inspection regimen.

Militarily, Iran likely would retaliate to any U.S. attack by striking American troops in neighboring Iraq and to any Israeli attack by directing the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, its ally in Lebanon, to strike targets in northern Israel, said retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Giora Goren, who was in charge of air force intelligence for the Osirak operation.

Direct talks between the Bush administration and Tehran, not military strikes by the United States or Israel, are the only answer, said Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“We may be at the point of maximum leverage right now. The Iranians do believe we are going to strike their country,” he said. “Now we have to give them a way out. This is the moment to open the door and say, ‘If you will resolve our concerns about your program, we’ll resolve your concerns about the security of your regime.’”

• Distributed by New York Times News Service.

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