JERUSALEM Should Israel attack Iranian nuclear facilities, it would probably carry out precision strikes while making every effort not to hit the oil sector or other civilian sites.
Past Israeli operations, such as the 1981 bombing of Iraq's Osirak atomic reactor and a similar sortie against Syria in 2007, suggest a strategy of one-off pinpoint raids, due both to military limitations and a desire to avoid wider war.
A simulation at the Brookings Institution in Washington last December theorized that Israel, intent on halting what the West suspects is Tehran's covert quest for atomic arms, would launch a sneak attack against half a dozen nuclear facilities in Iran.
Israel might then argue the mission "had created a terrific opportunity for the West to pressure Iran, weaken it, and possibly even undermine the regime," Brookings expert Kenneth Pollack wrote in a summary of the wargame, though he saw little chance of the Obama administration looking kindly on this tack.
Israel's advanced F-15 and F-16 warplanes have the range to bomb western Iran and strike further inland with air-to-air refueling and using stealth technology to pass through the air space of intermediate hostile Arab nations.
Israel could also launch Jericho ballistic missiles with conventional warheads, according to a 2009 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Israel's three German-built Dolphin submarines are believed to be capable of carrying conventional and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. They would have to transit through Egypt's Suez Canal -- as one did last year -- to reach the Gulf.
Special forces might be deployed to spot targets and possibly launch sabotage attacks. Israel has also been developing "cyber warfare" capabilities and could use this together with other activities by Mossad secret service agents on the ground, security sources say.
Israel would not want to risk drawing in Iranian allies like Hezbollah, Hamas or Syria. Israel also does not want to damage ties with neutral Arab powers or the United States. And finally - speaking in favor of a short, sharp assault - its conventional forces are designed for brief border wars, not prolonged action.
"If there were to be an Israeli attack, the only thing that might be contemplated by Israel would be a precision strike focused on nuclear facilities alone," said Emily Landau, senior research associate at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.
"Israel has no issue with Iran beyond the fact that it is developing a military nuclear capability, coupled with the harsh rhetoric coming out of Iran," she said.
Israel would be loath to attack Iranian energy assets, like oil production and shipping facilities. This could stoke the inevitable spike in oil prices, turning international opinion against Israel, while alienating the Iranian dissident movement.
Still, Israel could be forced to broaden its target book.
Should Iran retaliate for a sneak Israeli strike with Shehab missile launches against Tel Aviv, for example, the Netanyahu government would find it hard not to escalate. It would need outside assurances that the Shehab salvoes would stop -- say, through a U.S. military enlistment against Iran, or a truce.
"It would obviously not be in Israel's interest to enter into any wider conflict with Iran, because there is always a wider danger of escalation. When conflict spirals, it is hard to say how it will end," Landau said.
After losing the tactical edge of any initial sneak ambush, Israeli forces would find it hard to keep up precision attacks.
Iran would be on alert for hostile warplanes, submarines and commandos. Iraq, Turkey or Saudi Arabia -- which a 2006 study by the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology saw Israeli warplanes overflying en route to Iran -- would shut down their air space.
The Israeli public, meanwhile, would chafe at living in shelters and the loss of troops.
In such a situation, Israel might rely increasingly on "stand-off" weaponry such as the Jerichos, which Jane's missile experts believe are accurate only to around 1,000 yards (meters). This could mean more damage to Iran's civilian infrastructure, including the lifeblood energy sector.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul/Janet McBridre)