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Q+A: Could Israel strike Iran over nuclear concerns?

(Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Sunday that Israeli President Shimon Peres told him in August that Israel would not attack Iran.

Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused in the past to rule out any option to avert the threat he believes a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the Jewish state.

Many analysts believe the risks of a strike by Israel, even one not endorsed by its ally the United States, are significant.

Here’s where matters stand:


It’s a poker game with high stakes and a degree of bluff. Israeli leaders refuse to rule out any option. They do not believe Iran’s assurances it wants only nuclear energy. Noting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated assertions that Israel has no future, Israel says an Iranian bomb is a threat to its very existence that it will simply not tolerate.

Last year, however, it emerged officials were making plans for how Israel might live with a nuclear Iran in a state of mutual deterrence. And a June poll showed Israelis would not expect a nuclear Iran to attack. Last week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said even a nuclear Iran could not destroy Israel, stating: “Israel can lay waste to Iran.”

Since becoming prime minister in March, Benjamin Netanyahu has, aides say, made ending threats from Iran a defining element of what he sees as his personal role in Jewish history. A 1981 Israeli air strike that destroyed Iraq’s only nuclear reactor, as well as a strike in Syria in 2007 that is cloaked in mystery, set precedents. Despite a policy of silence, few doubt Israel has nuclear weapons and missiles that can hit Iran.


It is not clear how Israel would define achieving its goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But a pledge from Iran to forswear such arms, backed by some form of supervision and intelligence data, might be a minimum. Much will depend on Iran’s actions and on U.S. President Barack Obama and others, who are pressing Iran through sanctions and diplomacy.

While many analysts doubt Iran’s denials of military intent, some say Iran may be content with showing it has the potential to go nuclear quickly, without actually arming itself. Israel, however, might not accept that level of potential threat.

In the meantime, were Israel to consider a unilateral strike on it Iran it would have to weigh several major risks:

-- of retaliation, not just from Iran but its allied guerrilla groups, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas

-- of economic and diplomatic backlash from U.S. and allies

-- of a failed attack still triggering the above reactions


First, Iran’s technology: Israel’s national security adviser said in July it had passed a “red line” in terms of being able to make its own nuclear explosive but could not make significant amounts nor yet put viable nuclear warheads on its missiles.

Mossad chief Meir Dagan, seen as a key figure in Israel’s Iran policy who has just had his mandate unusually extended to 2010, said in June Iran could have a viable warhead in 2014.

Second, diplomacy: Iran is to meet on October 1 with six major powers concerned about its nuclear plans. In May, Obama told Netanyahu that “by the end of the year” he expected to judge whether diplomacy was succeeding. Last week, a former senior official said that if the West did not agree crippling sanctions by the end of the year, Israel would have to strike.


Obama, at odds with Netanyahu over Jewish settlement in the West Bank and peace moves with the Palestinians, said in July he had “absolutely not” given Israel a green light to attack. He was responding to his vice-president saying that Israel had a right to act if it felt “existentially threatened.” Israel would be reluctant to anger its key ally. It would not wish Washington to be surprised, might even want U.S. help. But many analysts believe Israel might yet go it alone.

Some question whether Israel’s U.S.-armed military has the range and firepower to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities without U.S. help. Analysts say Israel might be content with slowing any nuclear arms program, hoping for political change to end it.

Talk of an Israeli unilateral strike may also be part of a tactic of deterrence, or a bid to ensure U.S. cooperation.


Overt or covert? Israel has been developing “cyber-war” capabilities that could disrupt Iranian industrial and military control systems. Few doubt that covert action, by Mossad agents on the ground, also features in tactics against Iran. An advantage of sabotage over an air strike may be deniability.

Militarily Israel can also deploy the following forces:

AIR -- 500 combat aircraft, including F-15s and F-16s able to bomb Iran’s west, and further with aerial refueling, a technique for which the air force has been training. Planes can overfly hostile Arab states using stealth technology. Armed with “bunker buster” bombs that can be released with accuracy outside Iran’s airspace. Israel is also assumed to have dozens of Jericho missiles designed to carry conventional or nuclear warheads to the Gulf. An Israeli nuclear strike is unlikely.

LAND -- Special forces could be deployed on the ground, to spot targets, and also possibly destroy them with sabotage.

SEA -- Israel sailed one of its three German-made Dolphin submarines into the Red Sea through Suez in June, opening a way to the Gulf. The submarines are believed to be capable of firing nuclear and conventional cruise missiles.

MISSILE Defense - Israel is upgrading its Arrow missile interceptor, which is underwritten by Washington, and can also expect to avail itself of American Aegis anti-missile ships deployed in the Mediterranean. X-band, a U.S. strategic radar stationed in Israel, further cements the alliance.

Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Jon Boyle