Amy Teibal – Associated Press September 30, 2009
It may seem counterintuitive, but the news that Iran has a second, clandestine uranium enrichment plant, and has just test-fired long-range missiles, could actually put off any plans for a quick Israeli strike.
To be sure, Israel still sees an Iran with nuclear weapons as its greatest threat and has not taken a military assault off the table. Its defense minister, Ehud Barak, said as much in London on Tuesday.
Neutralizing the threat remains Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's top priority. And the spectacle of upgraded missiles flying across Israel's TV screens only feeds its resolve to keep Iran at bay.
Yet the latest developments are likely to push world powers to impose the tough sanctions that Israel has been seeking. Giving Israel's position a higher profile on the world stage may also make it less inclined to act unilaterally.
For years, Israel has warned that Iran was not being honest about the size and nature of its nuclear program, which Tehran claims is designed to produce energy. Israel has portrayed last week's disclosure of the second facility, hidden in the arid mountains near the holy city of Qom, as confirmation of its suspicions.
"If there ever was a thought of (Israel) going with a military option, it's been put off," said Ephraim Kam, the deputy director of Tel Aviv University's Institute of National Security Studies. "Iran was caught lying again, it's clearly moving toward becoming a nuclear power.
"Now the Americans are better able to try to persuade the Europeans, and even the Russians, to go for tougher sanctions," he said.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst working in Israel, agreed.
"It's likely that Israel will now be included more in the decision-making process," he said. "The more Israel sees itself as part of the process of dealing with the Iranian nuclear question, the less likely it is that it will take part in a unilateral action."
In a meeting with British Defense Minister Bob Ainsworth, Israel's Barak said the existence of the second plant should trigger harsh sanctions, according to a statement from his office which added that Israel "is not removing any option from the table."
The reference to "options" is seen as a signal that an Israeli military strike remains a possibility.
Iran's nuclear chief, Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, said Tuesday that his country built the newly revealed facility inside a mountain and next to a military site to protect it from attack. He didn't identify the potential attackers.
Iran said the Shahab-3 and Sajjil missiles it tested had a range of 1,200 miles and can "target any place that threatens Iran." Israel, parts of Europe and U.S. military bases in the Mideast are within that range.
Iran's nuclear program, its missiles and its patronage of Palestinian and Lebanese militants on Israel's northern and southern flanks combined to make it Israel's most formidable foe. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated references to Israel's eventual destruction have only intensified concerns.
"The most urgent challenge facing this body is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told the U.N. General Assembly last week.
Netanyahu has said sanctions are the best option, especially considering Iran's weakened economy and its domestic turmoil following contested elections. The revelation of the Qom facility did not significantly alter the preference for diplomacy because world intelligence agencies, including Israel's, have reportedly known about its existence for years.
Israel's 1981 air attack on an unfinished nuclear reactor in Iraq has long spurred speculation that such a strike might be replicated against Iran. But Iran's nuclear facilities are scattered across the country and highly fortified. Military experts are divided over whether Israel could cripple them or just set the program back a few years.
Washington has sent out multiple signals that it opposes a military strike and wants to see if sanctions can do the job. If Israeli warplanes flew to Iran, they would probably need permission to cross air space controlled by the U.S. and other countries.
But the threat of attack can serve diplomacy well, said Hazhir Teimourian, a British-based historian of the Middle East.
"I think Israel's threats to resort to military action have been taken seriously by the Americans and the Europeans, and that concentrates their minds," Teimourian said.
"They will resort to sanctions more readily and more deeply than they might otherwise do," he said. "It suits the West for Israel to shout about it."
AP correspondent Amy Teibel has been covering Israel since 1996.
Last updated 01/10/2009