US cool to Israeli strike on Iran

Posted in United States , Israel / Palestine , Iran | 07-Oct-08 | Author: Peter Hirschberg| Source: Asia Times

US President George W. Bush (right) and now former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert chat during a tour to an ancient hilltop fortress, in May, during Bush's visit to Israel.

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will travel to Moscow this week for talks that will focus largely on Iran's nuclear program at a time when there seem to be growing signs that the US is unenthusiastic about the idea of an Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Since President George W Bush's visit to Israel in May to mark the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state, there have been reports that Washington is sticking to its policy of sanctions on Iran and that, for now, Israel does not have a green light to strike at its nuclear sites.

Media reports emerged about two months ago that the US had denied an Israeli request for a weapons package that would have increased its capability of launching an attack on Iran's nuclear installations. Last month, the daily Ha'aretz reported that the security aid package included "a large number of bunker-buster bombs, permission to use an air corridor to Iran, an advanced technological system, and refueling planes".

The Guardian newspaper has quoted European officials saying that the US had turned down an Israeli request earlier this year for permission to hit at Iran's nuclear sites. The report quoted "senior European diplomatic sources" saying that "Israel gave serious thought this spring to launching a military strike on Iran's nuclear sites but was told by President George W Bush that he would not support it and did not expect to revise that view for the rest of his presidency".

The US decision, the report said, was based on the concern that Israel would not be able to sufficiently damage Iran's nuclear facilities, which are spread out and well-protected, and also that Iran's retaliation "would probably include a wave of attacks on US military and other personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on shipping in the Persian Gulf".

Both the US and Israel believe Iran's nuclear program is aimed at producing an atomic bomb. Iran insists its nuclear endeavors are purely civilian in nature and are aimed at generating nuclear power. When quizzed about Israel's policy toward Iran, Israeli leaders often reply that all options are on the table - a clear reference to the military option.

Without US consent, says Ephraim Kam, deputy head of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, it is highly unlikely that Israel would carry out an attack. But, he adds, if the US does not give Israel the green light, then they need to offer an alternative.

"Some have mentioned the possibility of a [US-Israel] defense treaty," he told Inter Press Service. "We need a clear-cut statement saying that any nuclear attack on Israel will be considered an attack on the US. That America would respond with nuclear weapons against Iran. This would be an important deterrent."

There has been much speculation over the point at which Iran will go nuclear. Earlier this week, David Kay, who was in charge of the US team that searched for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, said Iran was two to five years away from being able to produce an atomic bomb.

According to Kam, who served as a colonel in the Research Division of Israel's Military Intelligence, the assessment of when exactly Iran will go nuclear is "moving all the time". He puts this down to a combination of a "lack of intelligence and maybe the Iranian timetable changing because they are meeting many technological difficulties".

But in considering the timetable for a possible attack by Israel, there are other considerations besides when exactly Iran will reach the nuclear tipping point - like whether the Iranians will receive an advanced air defense system they have requested from the Russians. The delivery date of such a system could factor into Israel's timetable, if it were to carry out an attack. "This would make it much more difficult and costly to attack those [nuclear] sites," says Kam, referring to the Russian anti-aircraft missile system.

Kam does not rule out the possibility that ultimately Israel will have to face the reality of living with a nuclear Iran. If that happens, he says, "we will be living under a much more severe threat ... But will Iran use the bomb against Israel? Logically, it won't".

Israel is reported to have a second-strike capability. Millions of Iranians, says Kam, could be killed in an Israeli counter-strike. This potential for massive devastation would not be lost "even on a fundamentalist regime like Iran", he says.

But, he adds, there are no guarantees. "My concern is that we don't have any dialogue with Iran. When you have two nuclear actors who don't talk to each other, there can be a miscalculation. This is a recipe for deterioration. For uncontrolled escalation."