Sunday Times (London) March 13, 2005
Taking aim at Iran
By Uzi Mahnaimi and Tony Allen-Mills
Israeli troops are training for an assault on Iran's nuclear facilities. Will it happen and what would be the fallout? Uzi Mahnaimi and Tony Allen-Mills report
Israel's finest soldiers had been flying for several hours before the assault helicopters reached their target -the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, in southern Iran. Most of the men from the Shaldag battalion were dressed in the uniform of the Iranian Pasdaran militia, while others wore Israeli army kit and carried the standard issue M4A1 carbine rifle fitted with Trijicon Reflex sights.
As the helicopters dropped low over the desert, the commandos adjusted their night vision equipment. At the back of one craft two large dogs from the Oketz unit strained against tightly held leashes. Close by were packs of explosives that would be strapped to them.
As the choppers landed several miles from the target, the soldiers spilt out and ran to lorries hidden by Mossad agents. The Oketz men strapped the bombs to the dogs.
As the lorries approached a dimly lit installation minutes later, snipers picked off seven guards at its entrance. The trucks thundered through the gates and headed for the gas centrifuges used to generate weapons-grade uranium.
The soldiers fanned out, shooting and planting explosives. The dogs were sent down narrow tunnels leading deep into the bowels of the complex.
For about 10 minutes nothing happened. The lorries had cleared the plant when a series of explosions was heard underground. Moments later, Israeli F-15 jets screamed in, dropping bunker-busting bombs.
The attack proceeded flawlessly, with only one reservation. This was not the real Natanz plant, just a mock-up in Israel's Negev desert.
For the past few months, elite Israeli commandos have been training for an assault on Iran's nuclear facilities. One more full rehearsal has been scheduled for next month, said senior Israeli intelligence sources last week.
The news that Israel is planning unilateral action to end what it considers an imminent Iranian nuclear threat comes as American and European diplomats are announcing new initiatives for negotiation with Tehran.
Although publicly committed to the diplomatic effort, Israeli officials say the "point of no return" will come later this year when they calculate Iran will be in a position to start processing uranium. They say Ariel Sharon's inner cabinet has decided to act alone if the impasse has not been broken.
"If all efforts to persuade Iran to drop its plans to produce nuclear weapons should fail, the US administration will authorise Israel to attack," said one Israeli security source.
So in the tradition of Israeli military adventurism -the honour roll includes the destruction of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and the raid on Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976 -Jerusalem is preparing for another daring strike.
It is a move which, if carried out, might scupper President George W Bush's Middle East peace plans and unleash the full force of Iran's military might against Israel and Jewish interests around the globe.
So what is really going on amid the barren emptiness of the Negev desert? Is Israel really girding for battle? And how should America, Britain and the rest of the world react?
IRAN'S nuclear future is under construction on a spit of land that juts into the Gulf 150 miles east of Kuwait. The Bushehr nuclear site is the home to a nearly completed Russian-built plant that will be capable of producing a quarter of a ton of weapons-grade plutonium a year -enough, say nuclear experts, to build 30 atomic bombs.
Tehran has insisted that Bushehr is intended solely for civilian power generating purposes but few western experts believe that. They point to a string of other facilities around the country -some buried deep underground in hardened bunkers - which they say adds up to a clandestine weapons programme.
Some of these locations are known to the International Atomic Energy Agency and to western intelligence. They include a uranium mining facility at Saghand; a plant at nearby Ardekan for preparing yellowcake, the first step to nuclear fuel; and the Natanz enrichment facility that is the chief focus of Israeli concern.
To these can be added up to a dozen more sites whose exact function remains uncertain. "You do not have to be an expert to realise that almost all those activities have little practical value for any kind of civil programme," said Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Almost all of them have applications to a nuclear weapons programme."
The prospect that Iran's fundamentalist rulers might one day get their hands on any kind of nuclear bomb is anathema to Israel.
"The preservation of a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East is the cornerstone of Israel's security policy," says John Pike, a weapons specialist with Globalsecurity.org. "Iran is behind most of Israel's torments."
US military officials describe Israel as a "one bomb country" -small enough to be destroyed by a single nuclear strike. As the domed reactor of Bushehr has risen steadily, Israeli officials have warned they will not tolerate "atomic ayatollahs" pointing nuclear missiles at Jerusalem.
There are significant differences among nuclear experts over how long it might take Tehran to build its first useable bomb, but most agree the Iranians are within a year of completing facilities that would begin weapons production. The risk of delaying a military strike, they say, is that once the Bushehr reactors start up, their destruction might cause an environmental catastrophe on a par with the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.
Israel is not alone in its fear of a nuclear Iran. US officials believe Iran's main purpose in obtaining atomic capability is to confirm its status as a regional power and to deter the Americans from what the Iranians regard as adventurism.
Equally worrying for the West is the threat that nuclear materials might fall into the hands of Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups.
For much of the past four years, the United States and Europe have been divided over how to tackle the threat. Britain, France and Germany have led a diplomatic drive to persuade Iran to abandon its weapons programmes. Last year Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, but the so-called EU-3 group has made little headway in persuading Tehran to renounce its weapons ambitions.
However, to the chagrin of America's neoconservatives, the diplomatic process is continuing. The announcement last week of new, US-backed incentives for Iran - including civilian aircraft parts and support for Iranian membership of the World Trade Organisation -is designed to break the impasse by peaceful means. If Iran fails to respond, the issue is expected to go to the UN security council later this year where it is likely to become deadlocked, freeing Israel to take unilateral action.
ISRAEL was not always so worried about Iran's nuclear programme. In the mid 1970s, Israeli scientists arrived at the Amirabad research centre in Tehran to help with laser enrichment of uranium. But that was another age, when the Shah sat on the Peacock throne and Israeli El Al flights were welcomed twice a week to Tehran.
Today the Israelis are forced to look from the outside in. Officials said that for more than a year, Israeli special forces have been operating a listening post close to the Iranian border in Iraqi Kurdistan.
It is also said to have deployed intelligence-gathering submarines in the Gulf and sent special forces on spying missions. The Israeli Ofek-6 spy satellite - previously used to monitor Saddam Hussein's Iraq -has also been moved to an Iranian orbit.
Unlike Osirak, the Israelis are said this time to be co-ordinating with American forces. They have no choice. Any air-launched attack on Iran would send Israeli warplanes over Turkey and close to Iraqi airspace, currently controlled by the Pentagon. Both Washington and Jerusalem know that whoever carries out any attack, the world will see it as a joint conspiracy.
It is equally clear that a number of hurdles stand in the way. Jerusalem must prepare for retaliatory assaults, either by Iranian-supplied missiles based in Lebanon or by Iranian backed terrorists.
Above all, they must strike the right target. Both British and American intelligence officials have confirmed that the whereabouts of all key Iranian facilities remains unknown.
"Yes, of course you can do a bit of bombing," said a senior Washington official.
"But are you sure you can hit everything? No. And when you've done it, what's the reaction? The Iranians close ranks, there's international uproar and they've still got their weapons programme. What did you achieve by this?"
Not the least of the reasons Bush has become so accommodating to European diplomacy is that the Pentagon has told him it can't be sure it has located the entire Iranian nuclear structure. "There isn't a military option at the moment," the Washington official added. By leaking details of its attack plans, Israel may be trying to put pressure on Bush amid concerns that the US is going "soft" on Iran in the interests of transatlantic harmony. Some analysts believe that if Washington concludes an Israeli attack is inevitable, US forces will be obliged to act in the hope of saving the Middle East peace process.
While the Israelis are less concerned about the broader peace process, many recognise that an attack only makes sense if it removes the Iranian threat.
On a recent Friday, a party was held on a remote Israeli kibbutz. Disco music was playing and a couple of dozen athletic young men were quaffing beers. No women were present.
The men were F-15 pilots from Israeli elite 69 squadron. They were enjoying a break before yet another rehearsal of an attack on Natanz. "We are ready," said their commander, Brigadier General Shkedi.
It may be a difficult, even foolhardy mission. But Israel has shown before that it will not be deterred if it concludes that its existence is threatened.
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