Israel Debates Reply to Threat of 'Nuclear' Iran

Most Israeli officials agree that an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose a dire threat to the Jewish state's existence. But they are divided on how to respond if U.N. sanctions fail to deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is one of those mornings when the news compels us to tour the hotspots. After Afghanistan and Iraq, we now consider Iran. As much as that country's nuclear program concerns the West, it is causing even greater concern in a country just a few hundred miles away: Israel.

Israeli officials agree that a nuclear Iran would be an existential threat to the Jewish state. They do not agree on what to do if the United Nations can't restrain that program, and some Israelis speak of unilateral military action against Iran.

Here's NPR's Linda Gradstein.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, but most Israeli analysts believe it's only a matter of time until Iran has the capability of making a nuclear bomb.

Mr. DANI YATOM (Labor Party, Israeli Parliament): This is the greatest threat Israel might face, because it is not yet a threat. But once, God forbid, it will be a threat, it will be the greatest threat for the very existence of the state of Israel.

GRADSTEIN: Dani Yatom, a former member of the Mossad and today a member of parliament from the Labor Party, says he takes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's harsh anti-Israel rhetoric seriously.

Mr. YATOM: It is almost vital for Israel to convince the free world, led by the United States, not only to possess sanctions over Iran but also not to exclude any military operation against Iran.

GRADSTEIN: Yatom and other Israeli officials welcome the U.N. Security Council decision last month to impose limited sanctions against Iran. And the official position here is that Israel hopes the sanctions will do the job. But many Israelis doubt U.N. actions will convince Iran to abandon a nuclear program it has invested many years in developing.

General ZVI SHTAUBER (Institutions for Strategic Studies, Tel-Aviv University): Without the effective sanctions, sooner or later - we are not yet at this junction - there will be a question of using military means.

GRADSTEIN: General Zvi Shtauber, the head of the Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel-Aviv University, warns that if Iran goes nuclear, other states in the region such as Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia will feel threatened. He says these countries will then try to develop their own nuclear programs, which could also threaten Israel.

Gen. SHTAUBER: Because of Iran nuclear will be much greater than any cost of military action. But we need to prepare ourselves for this eventuality.

GRADSTEIN: Just when Iran will get the bomb is a matter of debate among these analysts. Uzi Dayan, a former Israeli national security adviser, says it's between two and five years before Iran will develop the expertise to build a bomb. But he says if Israel doesn't stop Iran in the next year, it may be too late.

Mr. UZI DAYAN (Former National Security Adviser, Israel): The only way to prevent Iran later from achieving this capability will be by using military or even a non-conventional force. Which means that 2007, the beginning of 2008, taking into account that November 2008 there is an election in Washington, so this is actually the real window of opportunity.

GRADSTEIN: Earlier this month, the London Sunday Times reported that two Israeli Air Force squadrons are training to blow up the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz using low yield nuclear bombs. The report said other sites would be attacked with conventional weapons. Israeli officials denied the report, but it sparked a debate here about whether Israel has the capability to destroy Iran's nuclear program on its own.

In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak, south of Baghdad. Former Mossad head Dani Yatom says an attack against Iran would be much more complicated.

Mr. YATOM: The Iranians learned the lessons. There are many, many sites, dozens of different sites scattered all over Iran, some of which are dug very deep into the ground and it will be much more difficult. But still it is achievable.

GRADSTEIN: Other experts such as Shlomo Brom, the former head of Israel's Air Force Strategic Planning, say that Israeli Air Force jets will find it difficult to carry out a sustained air campaign against Iran, which is more than 600 miles from Israel. He said it's also not clear if Israel knows precisely where all of Iran's nuclear sites are located.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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