The debate has intensified in Israel over whether the time has come for Iran’s nuclear facilities to be bombed by the Jewish state. Israeli officials are increasingly talking about this possibility, and are giving the impression that international diplomatic efforts aimed at convincing Iran to end its nuclear programme have achieved nothing.

If attacked, it is likely that Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons will increase- Anthony Manduca

The Jerusalem Post reported last week that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that delaying Iran’s nuclear plans for a few years through air strikes “to buy time for regime change or other unforeseen developments” would be worth the risks involved, even if Teheran’s nuclear programme wasn’t completely destroyed.

And two prominent Israeli journalists, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, wrote that if it were up to Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, an Israeli military attack on Iran would be launched in the next few weeks, before the US election in November, in order to put pressure on President Barack Obama to support such a move. However, they are opposed by many Cabinet colleagues as well as the bulk of the Israeli military establishment.

Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, was probably reflecting his Prime Minister’s views last Wednesday when he told a business breakfast meeting that Israel would be willing to launch air strikes against Iran even if the attack only temporarily delayed Teheran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons. “Diplomacy hasn’t succeeded. We’ve come to a very critical juncture where important decisions have to be made,” he was reported to have said by various sections of the international press.

In another significant development last week, an American blogger, Richard Silverstein – whose blog (a liberal Jewish one) is dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute – published what he said are Israel’s plans to attack Iran. Silverstein claimed the plans were leaked to him by a “known and trusted source” who is a former Israeli government minister. These plans, Silverstein said, were leaked to his source by an Israeli military officer.

Silverstein said an Israeli attack on Iran will open with a “coordinated strike, including an unprecedented cyber-attack which will totally paralyse the Iranian regime and its ability to know what is happening within its borders”. He also said such an attack will include the launching of dozens of missiles, an aerial attack, a sophisticated cyber attack and the assassination of senior Iranian military and intelligence officials.

The blogger claims the leaks occurred because the majority of senior Israeli military and intelligence officials are against attacking Iran, because the risks are far too great and at best, such a course of action would only delay Iran’s nuclear programme.

Silverstein wrote that such plans show that Israel is prepared to go for a “shock and awe” campaign against Iran and is Netanyahu’s way of showing that Israel can conduct a high-tech war without a high number of Israeli casualties.

Israel’s outgoing Civil Defence Minister Matan Vilnai last week also had his say in the on-going debate, and said an attack on Iran would likely lead to a month-long conflict that would leave 500 Israelis dead. Vilnai told the Maariv newspaper that the fighting would be “on several fronts” with hundreds of missiles fired at Israeli towns and cities in retaliation for an attack on Iran.

Nobody knows whether Israel has made a final decision over whether to attack Iran – US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said recently he does not believe Israel has made up its mind yet – neither is it clear if the leaked plans for an attack on Iran are indeed genuine. Furthermore, were these plans leaked by Israeli ‘doves’ in order to prevent such attacks, or by ‘hawks’ to exert pressure on the international community, particularly the United States, to clamp down harder on Iran because of its nuclear programme?

Some observers argue that the Israeli government is trying to psychologically prepare Israelis for a strike by giving the impression that military action is inevitable.

Significantly, a poll released last Thursday found 61 per cent of Israelis do not want Israel to strike Iran without US cooperation and 57 per cent believe the Israeli government’s threats are a tactic to pressure the Obama administration, according to the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University.

Any Israeli attack on Iran would be costly not only for Israel but for the whole international community, and there are certainly many risks involved. Iran has a whole range of ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel and would no doubt use them against the Jewish state. Iran would also respond through its proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon – which has about 10,000 rocket launchers and which receives $100 million to $200 (€162) million a year from Teheran – and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This could lead to a prolonged conflict breaking out between Israel and Hezbollah and between Israel and Hamas, which could develop into a broader regional conflict.

Iran could also retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz, where more than a third of the world’s tanker-borne oil passes through, which would have a huge impact on global oil prices. This could lead to a naval conflict between Iran and the US, which is in nobody’s interest. We can also expect more Iranian-sponsored terrorism against Israeli and US targets using Hezbollah, such as the recent attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, and even Iranian missile attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil rich eastern province, which would really cause the crisis to escalate.

If attacked, it is likely that Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons would increase, and the probability is that Iran would stop all cooperation with the international community on its nuclear programme – not that there is much cooperation at the moment – and pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It is important, therefore, that any military attack on Iran would have to really push back its nuclear programme by many years, yet it is not clear whether Israel can do this without US assistance. Whether the US is willing to join Israel in attacking Iran, however, when most experts believe Teheran is still a couple of years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon, is doubtful.

There are no easy answers to whether an Israeli attack on Iran at this point in time would be the right thing to do. There is no doubt that military action carries with it very serious risks, yet Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would be a very dangerous development.

With the Arab world in turmoil, however, we can ill-afford a long regional conflict which has the potential to spiral out of control. Once there is still some time before Iran does possess nuclear weapons, President Obama must do his utmost to convince Israel that the time is not right for such an attack, and Washington will not, at this stage, participate in any military strikes on Iran.

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