Middle East

How will Israel try to stop Iran's nuclear progress?

Israeli Air Force F16
Image caption Israeli media are widely discussing whether Iran's suspected nuclear sites should be bombed.

"The stable door has been left open and it's too late to close it." This sobering view of Iran's nuclear programme comes not from an extremist anti-Iranian campaigner, but from an experienced, rational chemistry professor who knows a thing or two about nuclear technology.

Uzi Even worked at Israel's top-secret (nuclear) research facility at Dimona in the Negev Desert for several years.

He is not allowed to say exactly in which capacity he was there, but the man who now earns a living as an academic at Tel Aviv University is regarded as an expert on Iran's nuclear capabilities.

"It is clear [from the latest IAEA report] that Iran possesses all that is required to make a viable nuclear device," Professor Even said.

"There is without doubt an intent and political determination in Iran to develop a device, you cannot come to any other conclusion," he said.

Israeli government officials have largely kept their counsel after the release of the report from the IAEA headquarters in Vienna but, for many here, it confirmed what they had already suspected - that Tehran has progressively been carrying out work and testing with the sole intention of developing a nuclear bomb.

Rhetoric and opinion

Iran denies it is trying to build a nuclear bomb, but for many years Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme has been Israel's number-one foreign policy and defence priority.

Successive Israeli governments have made it clear they will not "allow" Tehran to develop and possess a nuclear weapon.

In anticipation of the latest report from the IAEA, the Israeli media was full of rhetoric and opinion about whether or not Israel, and its allies, should bomb the Iranian sites.

Israel, of course, is widely believed to have its own nuclear arsenal but says that a nuclear device in the hands of the Tehran regime would destabilise the entire region and cannot be tolerated.

But how to act and when?

Professor Even says that Tehran already has the material to conduct a proper nuclear test.

"They could explode a device [underground] tomorrow in my opinion. Realistically, arming a missile with a nuclear warhead could take between two and three years," he told me.

Israel's most experienced politician in dealing with regional "threats" is Ehud Barak, the defence minister in the coalition government and former prime minister.

He will have, many times, weighed up the pros and cons of sending Israeli planes across hostile territory to carry out bombing raids against Iranian nuclear facilities.

On at least two previous occasions - in Iraq and Syria - Israel is believed to have successfully bombed and destroyed nuclear sites on enemy soil.

Image caption An Israeli air strike is believed to have destroyed a Syrian nuclear site in September 2007.

'Not pleasant'

But Ehud Barak knows that attacking Iran would be an entirely different proposition.

Firstly the Iranians are thought to have several nuclear research facilities, some of them buried deep underground.

Secondly, a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran would, almost certainly, provoke a military response from Tehran (and its militant allies in southern Lebanon and Gaza.)

The prospect of Iranian missiles falling on Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel's central coastal belt is a sobering one, but Mr Barak dismisses speculation that a short conflict with Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel.

In a radio interview about the military "option", Mr Barak acknowledged there would be Israeli casualties.

"There is no way to prevent some damage. It will not be pleasant," said the defence minister.

But, he added: "There is no scenario for 50,000 dead, or 5,000 killed and if everyone stays in their homes, maybe not even 500 dead."

Israel says it supports the idea of an even tougher regime of economic and political sanctions against Iran but suspects that would not stop Tehran's by now advanced nuclear programme.

Any military response would, ideally, be a united attack by the United States and other Western countries against Iran.

Failing that, Israeli leaders say they are prepared to go it alone if they have to.

It is a stance that opinion polls suggest is supported by a large number of Israelis, even though it could be constituted as an "act of war".

Recent sabre-rattling statements by Israeli officials could just be rhetoric, but they are alarming - the idea of a new conflict in the Middle East between two regional powers, even more so.

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