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Still no certainty on how, or if, Israel would strike Iran

JERUSALEM — On a drawing pad in his office, Alon, a senior Israeli military intelligence officer, sketches out the possible scenarios facing Israel and Iran.

Alon has been following the Iranian nuclear weapons program for more than 20 years. He has access to Israeli's best intelligence on Iran's progress toward building a nuclear bomb and to the thinking on Israel's options for stopping it.

"Maybe once a week someone calls me wanting to know the possibilities. How would we launch a military strike on Iran? What type of aircrafts would we use? What kind of bombs? Would we alert our allies in advance? Would it work?" he said. "Lately it has been more than once a week."

Alon, who could not be quoted by his real name and full rank because of the sensitivity surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue, said such questions right now are futile.

"I see a lot of speculation in the press. People claiming to know what flight routes Israeli aircraft would take and who would be involved," he said. "The truth is that no one knows anything yet because no decisions have been made."

Rather then a detailed military plan, Alon's drawing pad contained a series of flow charts on possible diplomatic and political initiatives that could be carried out as alternatives to a direct military confrontation with Iran.

Discussion of whether Israel — and possibly its allies — will launch a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks. Years of Israeli officials' promising that "all options are on the table" have culminated in a widespread internationally held belief that Israel will, if need be, launch a military strike against Iran.

But some analysts say the lack of certainty over what Israel will do is Israel's greatest advantage — convincing the world that it will go after Iran unless the rest of the international community steps in and stops it. Others say Israel is serious in its threats and already has drawn up a series of military plans to attack Iran once the order is given.

"No one will know which it is until we wake up one day and Israeli planes are circling back from Iran," an Israeli politician on the security cabinet told McClatchy, asking not to be named because Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu recently ordered members of his government to remain mum on the issue of Iran. "Or we wait another few years and the whole issue falls off the table as Iran consumes itself with political and financial woes. Maybe Israel also doesn't know which one it is yet."

Netanyahu's rare press embargo was put in place ahead of his visit this week to the White House, which was intended to better align Israeli and American positions on Iran, according to reports in the Israeli press. Writing in Haaretz, columnist Amir Oren argued that the U.S. was seeking assurances from Israel that it would be given fair warning before Israeli planes set out for Iran.

An unnamed U.S. intelligence source quoted in Haaretz said that the overriding assumption was that Israel would not give warning before an Iran attack. The U.S., the source was quoted as saying, was considering offering Israel the use of its airbases in the Persian Gulf in the hope it would force Israel to give some warning of a strike.

"Israel has everyone so worked up that the thought is, let's temper what they do, rather than, let's stop or control what they do," said one European diplomat based in Jerusalem, who like many diplomats declined to be identified further because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Israeli military officials who agreed to discuss, on a "hypothetical basis," the various scenarios for a military strike all agreed that the attack would be "quick and fierce."

The Israeli air force's advanced F-15 and F-16 warplanes have the range to strike at western Iran and farther inland with air-to-air refueling — a maneuver they have practiced over Turkish and Greek airspace in recent years. While various flight routes have been examined by the Israelis, including paths over Turkey and Iraq, Israel would likely prefer to fly over Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

"It's the type of campaign that would be most successful if it were carried out before Iran moved all of their facilities underground, where the technicalities involved in wiping them out are much, much more complex," said one officer, who asked not to be identified by name because of the sensitivity of his job. He cited reports that Iran is currently believed to be moving much of its uranium enrichment facilities to a bunker built within the mountains of Fordo, a site just outside the holy city of Qom.

Other military experts predict that the U.S. and other Western allies would lend their military might to an attack on Iran.

"In the end, Israel is the most nervous about doing this on its own. I would say, in fact, that it is impossible Israel will act without the support of the U.S.," said one official in the foreign minister's office.

That support, said many Israeli officials, was more likely to come in an election year — this year, specifically.

"A lot of the talk about 2012 being the year in which Israel will 'deal' with Iran comes from speculation that Israel will do this while the U.S. is busy with an election, and the presidential candidates are falling over themselves to court the Jewish vote," said an Israeli official who recently worked at the Israeli consulate in New York and spoke only if he were not identified.

Others, like Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iran at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herziliya, have seen "Iran frenzy" rise and fall dozens of times.

"I've been talking about this since 2005, and nearly every year has been the 'Iran year,'" Javedanfar said. "I think the level of hysteria has dropped. ... If Iran gets a bomb it is not something I would like to see, but it doesn't necessarily mean the end. It's a mistake to use words like 'existential threat.'"

That term, however, remains a mainstay in the popular Israeli lexicon.

Sitting in the Iran House restaurant in south Tel Aviv, Benni Farnaz uses the term often when he talks about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Farnaz, who left Iran nearly 40 years ago, claims to still "know the Iranians."

"It takes one to know one. There is pride there, of the Persian Empire, of everything we were. If the Iranians can do something to further themselves, they will. And if that means posing an existential threat to Israel, they will do that, too," he said.

Farnaz and his friends still watch Iranian television — his daughter shows him how to stream it online — and movies. In Tel Aviv, he listens to a radio program dedicated solely to Iranian Jews who emigrated to Israel. He claimed he was "uniquely qualified" to know both sides of the debate — as an Iranian and an Israeli.

"I haven't seen any solid evidence that Iran is building a bomb, but I don't need to. I know they can and that is scary enough," he said.

Farnaz believes that Israel might be engaging in "spin" to convince the world that Iran poses a global threat, and he argues that any country would do the same to protect its natural interests.

"Israel is smarter then the rest. It saw the risk of Iran a long time ago and it has done its job and convinced the world to help," he said. "We are a small country but smart."

He then added, as an afterthought, "Iran is a smart country, too, maybe that is the problem. They are both countries who think they are smarter then the rest."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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