Iran’s nuclear ambitions pose the next big test

Deciding how to deal with Iran’s nuclear programme will be one of the main challenges faced by Ehud Olmert, who has taken over as acting prime minister at a time when Tehran appears to be stepping up its attempts to make an atomic bomb.

There have been persistent suggestions in Israel that, in the weeks before his stroke, Ariel Sharon was involved in talks with the military about a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, perhaps even before Israel’s election this March. Sharon reportedly visited special force and strategic airforce squadrons and was given details of military plans.

Although Israeli authorities have neither denied nor confirmed such plans, the mood in the country appears to be hardening.

A columnist in The Jerusalem Post, noting the rumours, described Iran’s nuclear weapons programme last week as “the greatest challenge facing the state of Israel today”.

“There is no room for doubt,” wrote the columnist, Caroline Glick. “The need to conduct a military strike against Iran’s nuclear programme increases with each passing day.”

Concerns have been intensified by the announcement last week by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s hardline president, that he will press ahead with atomic fuel research and development shelved more than a year ago at the insistence of the West.

Security sources said that since taking over as acting leader, Olmert has been given details of the attack plans. Unlike Sharon, however, he does not have a military background and any decision on action would be taken by an ad hoc three-man body set up this weekend, which also includes Shaul Mofaz, the defence minister, and General Dan Halutz, the armed forces chief of staff.

The precise nature of any Israeli attack is a secret, but a security source said it would employ highly sophisticated weaponry and involve the targeting of at least 10 Iranian installations.

There is a precedent in Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak plant in 1981, credited with destroying the nuclear programme of Saddam Hussein.

No such move would be taken without consulting Shimon Peres, 83, the former prime minister and the country’s senior statesman. “It all depends on Peres’s influence,” said one source. “It is unlikely that Olmert will make such a decision against his recommendations.”

Peres, who opposed the attack on Osirak, is believed still to oppose an attack on Iran. It is thought his position may change, however, if Ahmadinejad continues to try to realise his nuclear ambitions.

The tense relations between Israel and Iran have been further poisoned by Ahmadinejad’s reaction to Sharon’s stroke. The Iranian president called him a criminal and said he hoped news that he “has joined his ancestors is correct”.

Amid growing international concern, it emerged this weekend that the world’s five major nuclear powers — America, Britain, France, Russia and China — are working on a joint statement urging Iran not to go ahead with enrichment but to return to the negotiating table. Their statement, known as a démarche, is not expected to contain specific threats but officials said it could still have significant political impact. According to one American official it would allow the five to “show unity and cohesion, which has not always been there”.

Any decision on referring Iran to the security council and possible sanctions would be taken by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Its next scheduled meeting is not until March 6, but an emergency session could be called before then.

Hopes of a solution, in the meantime, have been pinned on a possible compromise under which Russia would enrich uranium mined in Iran to ensure that it is processed only into the low-grade fuel needed for power stations.,,176-1974961,00.html