TEL AVIV/WASHINGTON – March is shaping up as “go time” for Israel. With a general election looming on March 28, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is eager to look strong, and has ordered the armed forces to be ready that month for possible strikes on secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran, military sources have told the UK Times.
"Israel – and not only Israel – cannot accept a nuclear Iran," Sharon proclaimed recently. "We have the ability to deal with this and we’re making all the necessary preparations to be ready for such a situation."
Sharon‘s order came after Israeli intelligence warned that Iran was operating enrichment facilities, believed to be small and concealed in civilian locations. Israeli defense planners also believe the end of March is the "point of no return," after which Iran will have the technical expertise to enrich uranium in sufficient quantities to build a nuclear warhead in two to four years.
In early March, Mohamed El-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will present his next report on Iran. El-Baradei, who just received the Nobel peace prize, has warned that the world is "losing patience" with the country. Iran’s stand-off with the IAEA over nuclear inspections – not to mention aggressive rhetoric from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who recently said that Israel should be moved to Europe – are strengthening the rationale for a preemptive strike.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the frontrunner to lead Likud in the Israeli elections, pledged that if Sharon doesn’t act against Iran, "then when I form the new Israeli government, we’ll do what we did in the past against Saddam’s reactor, which gave us 20 years of tranquility."
In 1981, Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighters bombed the French-built Osirak nuclear reactor, under construction 18 miles south of Baghdad. Israel officials claimed the plant was designed to make nuclear weapons. Iraq denied that charge.
If a military operation is approved, Israel will use air and ground forces against several nuclear targets in the hope of stalling Tehran‘s nuclear program for years, Israeli military sources told the Times. Cross-border operations and intelligence from a base established by the Israelis in northern Iraq are said to have identified a number of Iranian uranium enrichment sites unknown to the IAEA.
Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the Israeli military intelligence chief, also likes March. He has warned Israel‘s parliament, the Knesset, that "if by the end of March the international community is unable to refer the Iranian issue to the United Nations Security Council, then we can say the international effort has run its course."
A March deadline for military readiness also stems from fears that Iran is improving its own intelligence-gathering capability. In October it launched its first satellite, the Sinah-1, which was carried by a Russian space launcher. "The Iranians’ space program is a matter of deep concern to us," said an Israeli defense source. "If and when we launch an attack on several Iranian targets, the last thing we need is Iranian early warning received by satellite."
Iran insists it wants only nuclear energy, while Israeli intelligence has concluded it is deceiving the world and has no intention of giving up what Tehran believes is its right to develop nuclear weapons.
Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons capability, although Tel Aviv has never acknowledged it. By the late 1990s the U.S. intelligence community estimated that Israel possessed between 75-130 nuclear weapons, including missiles and bombs, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
The U.S. has been noncommittal, but one senior White House source did tell the Times reporter that the threat of a nuclear Iran was moving to the top of the international agenda, and the question "what next?” would have to be answered in the next few months. Translation: Sure, March could work for us.