Will Israel strike at Iran's nuclear facility in 2012?

By Richard Kemp, December 29, 2011
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Buildings at the Osirak reactor site in 2002. It was hit by Israel in 1981 and the US in 1991

Buildings at the Osirak reactor site in 2002. It was hit by Israel in 1981 and the US in 1991

Britain and America reacted with fury at Israel's bombing of the Osirak nuclear site in 1981, questioning the threat it presented. But ten years later, Israel's judgment was explosively endorsed when the US felt the need to totally destroy the disabled Osirak during the largest airstrike of the Gulf War.

Following years of Syrian denial and international scepticism, a secret IAEA report seen by the BBC earlier this year gave strong evidence that the site bombed in 2007 by Israel in northeastern Syria was, as the Israelis had known, a secret nuclear reactor being built with the help of North Korea. Had that site been permitted to complete its apocalyptic programme, to what use would a desperate Assad - fighting for survival and slaughtering his own people by the thousand - now be putting his weapons of mass destruction?

I have seen at first hand the scepticism and accusations of exaggeration that have greeted Israel's attempts over many years to rally the free world to confront Iran's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But last month's IAEA report citing "credible and well-sourced" intelligence that Iranian nuclear weapons development is continuing sounded a note of alarm.

Unrelenting: Khamenei

Unrelenting: Khamenei

The dangers to Israel are beyond doubt.

President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have made clear that the "Zionist entity" must be wiped off the map. Despite the contrary views of many international experts, nobody with national security responsibilities can possibly dismiss such sentiments as mere rhetoric.

Many Middle Eastern states fear the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran just as much as Israel does and could well be panicked into their own arms race. The implications for the balance of power in the region, also affecting Western interests such as oil supply and trade, are enormous. Should international military intervention again become necessary, potential options would be dramatically reduced or removed completely.

But the Iranian nuclear danger extends beyond the Middle East. Since 9/11, a nexus of terrorist groups with weapons of mass destruction has become the West's gravest security concern.

Tehran has a long record of facilitating strikes against the West. And it has bridged the Sunni-Shia theological divide both in its support for Taliban attacks against our forces in Afghanistan, and for al-Qaida. This summer, the US government accused Iran of helping al-Qaida transfer cash and recruits into Pakistan for its international operations. There should be few higher priorities for the West than stopping Iran extending its already wide-ranging support for international terrorism into supply of nuclear arms.

Is there a diplomatic solution? Iran has responded to decades of appeasement, compromise and incentives - including even US military attack on the main Iranian opposition - with deception, aggression and outright contempt.

Our government can be commended for finally ordering financial institutions to stop doing business with Iranian counterparts, including the central bank. Others, including the US and Canada, have taken similarly robust action. But the sanction that could bite hardest, an embargo on Iranian oil sales, would also likely push up global oil prices, damaging Western economies at a time when they are struggling for survival.

Russia's and China's opposition to further economic measures also undermine the effectiveness of sanctions. The most they are likely to achieve is slowing Iran's nuclear programme.

Covert action of the sort that has seen a series of "accidents" involving nuclear facilities has only limited, delaying impact.

As each attack occurs, and new countermeasures are brought in, effective repetition becomes decreasingly possible.

The best option would be an Iranian solution - toppling the ayatollahs from within. But Tehran is vigorously suppressing all opposition. Western powers that could help bring about such change seem reluctant to invest the necessary effort.

Nor would regime change automatically provide the silver bullet: whatever government is in power in Tehran will see the acquisition of nuclear weapons as a national duty. Ensuring that the likes of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei would be replaced by a stable regime that could be trusted with responsibility for the ultimate destructive force would need concerted international support and diplomatic pressure from every quarter. So is an Osirak-style strike inevitable? Target hardening, site dispersal and Iran's air defences mean that it would present a far bigger challenge and may need greater use of ground forces. Intelligence collection and decision-making is as challenging as the operation itself. The critical judgment concerns the point at which Iran becomes capable of constructing nuclear bombs rapidly - amidst a thick fog of subterfuge and deception.

Following a strike, Tehran would almost certainly lash out - both at Israel and at any nations thought to be involved, using its own forces and proxies, which have global reach. This option is fraught with danger. But Prime Minister Netanyahu is no more prepared to be "the man in whose time there will be a second Holocaust" than was Menachem Begin.

Col Kemp commanded British Forces in Afghanistan and headed the International Terrorism and Iraq team for the Joint Intelligence Committee

Last updated: 12:40pm, December 29 2011