JERUSALEM – Israel would not be able to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations with a single air strike as it did in Iraq in 1981 because they are scattered or hidden and intelligence is weak, Israeli and foreign analysts say.
Israeli leaders have implied they might use force against Iran if international diplomatic efforts or the threat of sanctions fail to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said this month Israel is “taking measures to defend itself” – a comment that raised concern Israel is considering a pre-emptive strike along the lines of its 1981 bombing of an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak near Baghdad.
Speculation has also been fueled by recent Israeli weapons acquisitions, including bunker-buster bombs and long-range fighter-bombers.
Israel’s national security adviser, Giora Eiland, was quoted Monday by the Maariv daily as saying Iran will reach the “point of no return” in its nuclear weapons program by November rather than next year as Israeli military officials said earlier.
Concern about Tehran’s nuclear development intensified last week when Iran’s Vice President Reza Aghazadeh said Iran has started converting raw uranium into the gas needed for enrichment, an important step in making a nuclear bomb.
The declaration came in defiance of a resolution passed three days earlier by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, demanding Iran freeze all uranium enrichment – including conversion. The group’s 35-nation board of governors warned that Iran risked being taken before the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions.
Iran denies it is developing nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear development program is aimed at generating electricity. Israel and other countries, including the United States, doubt that.
Recent Israeli weapons purchases could be crucial in a possible strike.
In February, Israel received the first of 102 American-built F-16I warplanes, the largest weapons deal in its history. Military sources say the planes were specially designed with extra fuel tanks to allow them to reach Iran.
In June, it signed a $319 million deal to acquire nearly 5,000 U.S.-made smart bombs, including 500 “bunker busters” that can destroy six-foot concrete walls, such as those that might be found in Iranian nuclear facilities.
Military and strategic analysts in Israel and abroad say even with the new weaponry, Israel lacks the ability to carry out a successful strike against Iran’s nuclear installations.
“You have to have solid intelligence, you have to know what to hit … The intelligence on Iran is very weak,” said Alex Vatanka, an expert on Iranian security issues at Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessments in London.
Israeli strategic analyst Reuven Pedatzur pointed to a claim last year by Iranian opposition figures that foreign intelligence services have been unaware of two of the Iranian nuclear facilities.
“There is no good intelligence on Iran, and this is the proof,” he said. “Any Israeli attack on Iran would cause huge political damage, and in the end, the program would proceed.”
Other difficulties in attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities include their dispersal throughout the country, their sophisticated defense systems and the likelihood that some of the installations have been replicated, said Cliff Kupchan, vice president of the Nixon Center in Washington, a former Clinton administration Iranian expert who met with Iranian officials during a visit there last year.
Kupchan said IAEA threats to impose sanctions on Iraq are unrealistic, because U.N members, including those with fledging nuclear programs, such as Brazil, would be reluctant to back them.
Sanctions against Iranian oil production are also unlikely when world demand is about 80 million barrels per day, prices are sky-high, and the only surplus capacity – about 2 million barrels per day from Saudi Arabia – is heavy oil the market usually shuns. Iran exports about 2.6 million barrels per day.
Kupchan said if diplomacy fails, there may be no choice but for the United States to lead a concerted military campaign against Iran. “If the U.S. moves aggressively, it won’t be sanctions, it will be a coalition of the willing,” he said.
Speaking at the United Nations last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom appeared to back him up.
“The time has come to move the Iranian case to the Security Council in order to put an end to this nightmare,” Shalom said.