Israel, Iran and the Nuclear Question

Among the concerns raised by Iran's recent assertions that it will proceed with a uranium enrichment program is the threat of an Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

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The United States is not the only country where military action against Iran is under discussion. Israel is warning that Iran could face attacks if it develops nuclear weapons. Here's NPR's Linda Gradstein.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Speaking at Israel's most high profile strategic conference, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned Iran against pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Mr. SHAUL MOFAZ (Defense Minister, Israel): (Through Translator) Israel cannot accept an Iran with nuclear capability. Israel must be able to defend itself with all that implies and that's what we're preparing for.

GRADSTEIN: Mofaz was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel with his parents when he was nine years old. He said the majority of the Iranian people do not support President Ahmadinejad's policies or his recent statement that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map.

Mr. MOFAZ: (Through translator) I want to appeal to the Iranian president, who is from the city where I was born. I appeal to you who is leading your country with an ideology of hatred, terror and anti-Semitism. You should take a look at history and what happened to others who tried to destroy the Jewish people. They only brought destruction on their own people.

GRADSTEIN: Mofaz's threat against Iran is the most explicit Israeli statement to date. He was criticized by some European diplomats at the conference, an annual international gathering of politics and academics. Some in Israel also said Mofaz went too far, but analysts said it shows Israel's growing concern with an Iran that seems to be moving ahead with a nuclear program.

The international community is also expressing growing concern and is threatening sanctions against Iran, such as referring Iran's nuclear program to the United Nation's Security Council.

In an interview with the Financial Times of London, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator said yesterday that if that happens, Iran will resume full scale production of nuclear fuel.

Iran also reacted angrily to Mofaz's comments, saying that Israel would be making a “fatal mistake if it takes military action.”

Gerald Steinberg, a strategic analyst at Bar-Ilan University, says there is debate in Israel about exactly how close Iran is to achieving nuclear capability.

Mr. GERALD STEINBERG (Strategic Analyst, Bar-Ilan University):

A lot of this is guesswork. Not just because the intelligence isn't always 100 percent perfect, as we learned in other cases, but also because the rate of progress. What will it take? What will Iranians consider to be enough to have in that critical mass of, literally and figuratively? So there are different estimates and some of them are short as a few months and some go out a year or two.

GRADSTEIN: Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons, but has never officially admitted it. There's also a precedent for Israeli military action against a nuclear program.

In 1981, Israel launched an air strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor destroying it completely. Ten years later during the Gulf War when Iraq sent dozens of scud missiles against Israel, Israeli officials said they self vindicated.

Israeli analysts say there would be severe consequences to an Israeli strike on Iran. Iranian-backed groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in the west bank in Gaza would most likely retaliate heavily.

They say Mofaz's threat is meant to serve primarily as a deterrent to Iran. But they say it's also a signal that Israel could act militarily if all diplomatic efforts fail.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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