RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Nowhere is the alarm and concern about Iran's nuclear program and growing regional clout more acute than Israel.
On several occasions Iran's president has called for Israel to be eliminated. Israeli leaders say Iran's nuclear ambitions and its well-armed proxies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories pose the biggest security threat to the Jewish state.
As part of our series on Iran in the Middle East, NPR's Eric Westervelt has this report on the view from Israel.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Anxiety about Iran hangs in the air even in the often carefree culture of one of suburban Tel Aviv's hip, secular neighborhoods. Hair salon owner Gilli Azouli says Iran and its ally Syria dominate customer conversations. And when Azouli tells customers about the special shelter he's building deep under his apartment building, they snicker - at least at first.
Mr. GILLI AZOULI (Hair Salon Owner): They start to laugh. After we speak a couple of minutes, they don't laugh. They listen.
WESTERVELT: Azouli is convinced an Israeli war with Iran is looming. Maybe in a month, maybe a year, who knows, he says, but it's coming.
Syria won't mess with us. They know what we have, he says, referring to Israel's still officially unacknowledged nuclear arsenal. But Iran, he says, that's different.
Mr. AZOULI: Iran is different because they're fanatics. They think the Muslims have to rule all of the world, and it's a bit crazy.
WESTERVELT: So two and a half stories deep under the earth, Azouli is turning the standard Israeli safe room into a customized fallout shelter to try to protect his family. He's adding lead-plated walls and a state-of-the-art air filtration system able, in theory, to withstand a chemical, biological or perhaps even, he says, a nuclear attack.
Mr. AZOULI: Maybe it's not conventional. You cannot know what's coming. And when it starts, they are pushing the button, we are pushing the button, and everybody gets it.
WESTERVELT: Azouli is not alone. Beit El Industries, the leading Israeli maker of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare defense systems, reports a 3,000 percent increase in business in the last year. The company's marketing director tells NPR that's mainly because of growing concern over the Iranian threat. Every time Ahmadinejad opens his mouth, he says, traffic on our Web site more than doubles.
Israeli military intelligence estimates that if left unchecked, Iran will master the nuclear fuel cycle and begin producing nuclear weapons in as few as three years. The American estimate says it will take Iran longer, six to eight years.
Dr. Ephraim Kam is deputy director of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.
Dr. EPHRAIM KAM (Institute for National Security Studies): The Iranian government is the only government around the world which speaks explicitly about the elimination of the state of Israel. Iran is the only government we avoid.
WESTERVELT: Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful, energy-generating purposes only. Israeli leaders don't buy that. Just as many Israeli officials say at the end of the day they are unconvinced Iran and President Ahmadinejad will prove to be rational state actors if Tehran gets the bomb.
President SHIMON PERES (Israel): In his eyes, the nuclear bomb is higher than Allah, than the Lord in heaven.
WESTERVELT: Shimon Peres is Israel's president and most respected elder statesman. The 84-year-old Nobel laureate says Israel must take President Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric seriously. President Peres believes Iran can be stopped through a mix of diplomacy and tough economic sanctions, but only if the major powers are united and vigilant.
Pres. PERES: If the sanctions will be partly done or by part of the international community, it won't succeed. The strengths of Iran is the division of the international community.
WESTERVELT: Peres cites North Korea and Libya as prime examples where a mix of sanctions and incentives worked to halt nascent nuclear programs. But will strong sanctions prove painful enough to get Tehran to back down? Many analysts say Iranian political, religious and military elites - those pushing hardest for a nuclear program - have been relatively untouched by the first rounds of U.N.-backed sanctions.
A senior Israeli diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity tells NPR he sees, quote, "troubling signs of a lack of urgency by the international community," noting that the next round of possible sanctions isn't likely to go to the U.N. Security Council before October.
Israel, like the U.S., says that while diplomacy is the priority, the military option remains on the table. In 1981, Israel successfully launched a pre-emptive air strike on Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak, south of Baghdad, dealing a major blow to Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions.
But targeting Iran's sites would be much harder, says Iranian-born Israeli analyst Meir Javendanfar.
Mr. MEIR JAVENDANFAR (Iranian-born Israeli Analyst): Because they are dispersed, because they're in hardened shelters, and also because intelligence has been scarce regarding those sites, and also, I'm guessing here, the Iranians have probably been working out a very sophisticated disaster recovery system whereby if those sites are bombed, they will use the disaster recovery system to rebuild them very fast.
WESTERVELT: And Iran will almost certainly hit back at Israeli targets and U.S. interests, either through its Lebanese and Palestinian proxies, or by directly targeting Israel's population centers with its long-range missiles.
Again, military analysts and Army reserved Colonel Ephraim Kam.
Dr. KAM: Iran said explicitly that if it is going to be attacked, it will respond by firing the Shihab III ballistic missiles into Israeli territory. The range of them is covering the entire territory of Israel, including, of course, Tel Aviv.
WESTERVELT: Israel's Arrow anti-missile defense system is now operational but is untested in combat. A few believe Arrow could stop all Iranian missiles.
Indeed, Israel had no technological solution to the Katyusha strikes launched by Lebanese Hezbollah during last summer's war. The Shiite militia, which by all accounts gets significant funding, training and hardware from Iran, used short-range rockets to continually strike towns across northern Israel.
Palestinian militant factions Islamic Jihad and Hamas, both Sunni Arab groups, also get some funding and support from Shiite Iran, according to Israeli officials. These groups could prove a key strategic asset for Iran in any confrontation over its nuclear program.
With economic sanctions uncertain and the military option highly risky, some in Israel are now calling for a third way.
Mr. EPHRAIM HALEVY (Former National Security Adviser): I believe that the weakest link is our inability to dialogue with the Iranians and to talk to them.
WESTERVELT: Ephraim Halevy is the former head of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, and served as national security adviser to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Halevy says it's time for Israel to open up a diplomatic channel, quietly, as a vital tool to work alongside threats of force and sanctions. The former spy chief is convinced that direct dialogue has the best chance to succeed.
Mr. HALEVY: Our goal should be to prevail upon them so that they will realize that it's their self-interest not to pursue their present policy.
WESTERVELT: But a senior Israeli diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was skeptical. There's nothing to talk about, he said. The key now is for sanctions to cut to the bone. Using a boxing analogy, the diplomat said of Iran so far, quote: "He has a broken rib and eye lacerations but only sanctions that target the Iranian elite will get this fighter to go down."
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.
MONTAGNE: You can hear earlier stories on Iran's relationship to its neighbors at npr.org.
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