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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Israel has figured prominently in the news lately, from the freeze in its relations with Turkey to Palestinians' bid for recognition at the UN. But one piece of news that surfaced last week has been largely overlooked, that almost two years ago, the Obama administration approved the sale of deep earth penetrator bombs, or bunker busters, to Israel.

As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, the move raises uncomfortable questions about how they might be used.

MIKE SHUSTER: No U.S. officials have talked openly about why 55 American bunker buster bombs were provided to Israel in 2009, but speculation falls most heavily on a single target.

PAUL PILLAR: The one obvious use of these munitions that comes to mind would be a military strike against the Iranian nuclear program.

SHUSTER: Paul Pillar is a former senior CIA Middle East analyst now teaching security studies at Georgetown University.

PILLAR: Providing these bombs - number one, they make it more likely that Israel does that. Number two, even if they can come up with the technology themselves, this transfer could be interpreted as a green light from the United States for Israel to strike.

SHUSTER: It's no secret that Israel has given serious thought to attacking Iran's nuclear installations. In recent years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a primary target of his security concerns.

Just last week at the UN general assembly, Netanyahu referred to Ahmadinejad's speech the day before as an outrageous rant.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Can you imagine him armed with nuclear weapons? The international community must stop Iran before it's too late. If Iran is not stopped, we will all face the specter of nuclear terrorism.

SHUSTER: But the U.S. has not given Israel the green light to mount that attack, so it was all the more surprising when it was disclosed that President Obama agreed to let the sale of these bunker busters initiated in the Bush administration go through. The transaction was first reported by Newsweek. U.S. officials have not commented on the report, but a diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv written in November 2009 and found among the WikiLeaks documents confirms the imminent delivery of bunker busting bombs to Israel.

The subject came up during a meeting of the U.S.-Israel Joint Political Military Group. The cable warns that the transfer should be handled quietly to avoid allegations that the U.S. government is helping Israel prepare for a strike against Iran.

At that time, it was the stated policy of the Obama administration to engage in diplomacy with Iran, not threaten it with military force. The disclosure about the bunker busters naturally leads to the question: Did the Obama administration's policy toward Iran actually include the use of force?

Dalia Dassa Kaye doesn't think so. She's a fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center and a specialist on Iran and the Middle East. She argues it was part of Israeli preparedness.

DALIA DASSA KAYE: Israel clearly wants all the capabilities that are necessary to have a military option on the table. They always want to show they can do it, but whether they really want to do it is an open question.

SHUSTER: There is another possible American motivation for providing these bombs to Israel. At the time, President Obama was pressuring Netanyahu to freeze the construction of new Israeli settlements on the West Bank in the interest of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Arms deals like this one could be meant to sweeten such an effort, says Paul Pillar.

PILLAR: The provision of munitions would be one traditional way of trying to buy influence. In this particular instance, it apparently did not, but I expect that that was the context in which the Obama administration was looking at it.

SHUSTER: Dalia Dassa Kaye also thinks this was a motive for President Obama's support.

KAYE: There are some in the Obama administration who may have expected to get more, not that it was a direct linkage, but they may have expected that, given the extensive defense cooperation that they've been engaged with with the Israelis, that would buy them some political leverage and they, no doubt, were disappointed.

SHUSTER: The Iranian government has made no comment on the bomb transfer. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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