|News and opinions on situation in the Middle East|
|18/07/04||Israel targets Iran nuclear plant By Uzi Mahnaimi, Tel Aviv, and Peter Conradi|
The Sunday Times:
ISRAEL could launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran's Bushehr nuclear power station if Russia goes ahead with plans to supply it with fuel, a senior American official warned last week.
Amid growing concern in the US government over Iran's apparent determination to build a nuclear bomb, the official said he believed Israel would attack the plant, on the Gulf coast, if it appeared fuel rods were about to be shipped there.
Sources in Tel Aviv confirmed that the Israeli military had completed rehearsals for such a strike. “Israel will on no account permit Iranian reactors — especially the one being built in Bushehr with Russian help — to go critical,” an Israeli defence source said.
Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, recently called Iran the “biggest danger to the existence of Israel”. He said: “Israel will not allow Iran to be equipped with a nuclear weapon.”
Under the deal with Moscow, waste produced at Bushehr containing plutonium that could be used in bomb-making would be shipped back to Russia for storage. The procedure is to be supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog.
The material must first cool, however, providing the Iranians with what Washington fears could be up to two years in which to extract the plutonium. Israeli sources believe that a quarter of a ton a year could be produced if Bushehr was functioning fully — enough for 20 bombs.
The fuel rods, stored at a Russian port, are expected to be delivered late next year but only after the resolution of a dispute with Moscow over financial terms.
According to Israeli sources, any strike on Bushehr would probably be carried out by long-haul F-15I jets, flying over Turkey, with simultaneous operations by commandos on the ground.
“If the worst comes to the worst and international efforts fail, we are very confident we'll be able to demolish the ayatollahs' nuclear aspirations in one go,” said a source familiar with the plans.
The source said the strike could be accompanied by an attack on other targets, including a facility at Natanz where the Iranians have attempted to enrich uranium — another route to making a bomb. A plant at Arak producing heavy water could also be hit.
A classified document delivered to Sharon earlier this year and seen by The Sunday Times highlighted the anxiety of the Israeli defence establishment over the seriousness of the perceived threat from Iran.
The document, entitled The Strategic Future of Israel and written by four of the country's senior defence experts, said the military “should attack countries which develop nuclear weapons”. It also described Iran as a “suicide nation” and recommended “targeted killings” of members of the country's elite, including its leading nuclear scientists.
Israel, whose own nuclear weapons programme is undeclared, showed its determination to prevent “rogue” Middle Eastern regimes acquiring the bomb when its planes destroyed a reactor built by Saddam Hussein, then the Iraqi leader, at Osirak in 1981.
Israeli sources believe that despite criticism at the time from both the US and Europe, Washington would not attempt to stop a similar attack on Bushehr.
However, they acknowledge that it could provoke a ferocious response from Iran — which could target northern Israel with rockets based in southern Lebanon or stage terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets abroad.
The emergence of the Israeli plans coincides with a growing rift between Europe and the US over how best to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The efforts of Britain, France and Germany to find a diplomatic solution suffered a serious setback last month when Hasan Rowhani, a senior nuclear official, warned that Iran would reconsider an earlier decision to suspend enrichment of uranium.
Officials from the three countries will seek clarification from their Iranian counterparts later this month. Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, has accused Tehran of failing to provide convincing evidence to back its insistence it is not attempting to develop nuclear weapons.
Washington has become increasingly impatient, however, with what it sees as the failure of the softly-softly policy of Straw and the French and German foreign ministers — referred to disparagingly in private as “the Tehran three”. US officials have been pressing for the issue to be taken to the United Nations security council with the aim of subjecting Tehran to an escalating series of sanctions.
Although Iran claims that it is working on a civilian nuclear power programme, American officials argue that its huge oil and gas reserves obviate any need for one.
Further concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions was raised by claims yesterday that Tehran had been shopping for high-speed switches and other equipment that could be used to make a bomb.
The American commission investigating the September 11 terrorist attacks is also expected to reveal new evidence of contacts between Al-Qaeda and Iran when it reports this week.
Additional reporting: Mark Franchetti, Moscow
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