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For Israelis, a new worry: Iran's nuclear intentions

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- In the pine-tree-shaded hills outside Jerusalem, the Israeli government is building a massive war bunker where top government officials would take shelter in case of a biological, chemical or nuclear attack.

The government ordered the construction of the labyrinth of underground tunnels and rooms years ago - long before the current fears of Iran's nuclear ambitions - but its expected completion date in the next year or two could not be more timely.

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Israel's chief intelligence officer warned members of the Knesset last month that Iran could have a bomb by 2009, a weapon that Israelis increasingly worry that Tehran would not hesitate to use against the Jewish state. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has more than once vowed to "wipe Israel off the map."

Such a doomsday scenario might appear far-fetched, but in Israel concern over Iran's intentions has become a national obsession, creating new levels of anxiety as Iran vows to push ahead with its program in the face of United Nations Security Council sanctions.

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Some Israeli hawks fear that the window for diplomacy with Iran is closing and that Israel may be forced to act alone to stop Tehran. Others dismiss such fears as hype, suggesting that there is plenty of time to work out a nonmilitary solution to the crisis.

Speaking this week in Jerusalem, Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defense minister, bemoaned the world's reluctance to take stronger action against Iran to stop its nuclear program, which threatens not only Israel, but much of the world, he said.

"What I call upon them to do is wake up!" Sneh said.

Referring to Iran, he said: "Imagine that this regime - the powerhouse of terrorism in the region, with its ambitions of expansion and domination of the entire region - would have the power of nuclear blackmail. What would life in this region look like? Not only Israel, but other countries as well. That's why we believe everything should be done in order to avoid it," he said.

Iran maintains that it's pursuing a nuclear program for peaceful purposes only, primarily to generate electricity. But Israel, the United States and the European Union are convinced that Tehran is rapidly trying to develop an atomic bomb.

Although there is international concern about Iran, Israel complains that it finds itself very much alone in its fight with Iran. Israeli officials say Ahmadinejad's regime has sought to undermine the Jewish state by vowing to bring about its destruction, questioning the Holocaust and sponsoring attacks against Israel through its backing of Palestinian militant groups in Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Adding to Israel's uncertainty, there are worries that Israel's closest ally, the United States, remains so bogged down by the war in Iraq that it may hold back on stronger action against Iran in exchange for Tehran's help in bringing order and calm to Iraq.

"The election of Ahmadinejad and his constant attacks against Israel which have been made worse by his denial of the Holocaust have touched a very raw nerve in Israel," says Meir Javedanfar, the Tehran-born director of the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company in Tel Aviv.

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In a poll taken in November by the Israeli newspaper, Maariv, 66 percent of Israelis believed that Iran, if it develops a nuclear weapon, would try to use a bomb to destroy Israel. In preparation for such a scenario, several dozen wealthy Israelis have built personal bomb shelters in recent months, according to a spokesman for the Israeli home front command, although it is not something the government is recommending to Israeli citizens.

Just how far Israel is willing to go to stop Iran from obtaining a bomb remains unclear. A British newspaper, The Sunday Times, reported this month that Israel had drafted plans to conduct multiple airstrikes against Iranian targets to destroy its nuclear program. Quoting unnamed Israeli military sources, the article said Israeli pilots had gone on training flights to the British territory of Gibraltar to prepare for the 2,000-mile journey to Iranian targets and back. The Israeli government swiftly denied the report.

Still, some commentators speculated that Israel was flexing its military muscle in the face of an increasingly obstinate regime in Tehran.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has said repeatedly that Israel would "not tolerate" an Iran with nuclear arms, has not explicitly ruled out a military strike against Iran.

The newspaper report only added to increasing speculation in Israeli think tanks and universities about what Israel's options might be to halt Iran's nuclear program. Should it take a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear program? If so, when? And would it be successful?

In 1981, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sent jet fighters to bomb the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, accusing Saddam Hussein of building a bomb to destroy Israel.

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But hitting nuclear facilities may be far more difficult in Iran, where there would be multiple sites to knock out, many of them heavily fortified. Even if the strike were successful, Iran would be able to rebuild, and there is the potential for Iran to retaliate, analysts say.

Amid all the attention being given to the Iranian issue, some analysts caution that fears of an Iranian nuclear attack against Israel may be overstated given Israel's military strength. Israel is widely assumed to possess nuclear weapons, although it has long embraced a policy of "ambiguity," neither confirming nor denying their existence.

"The nuclear capability will give Iran new means to attack Israel if it decides to do that. The question is, would Iran attack Israel with a nuclear bomb? I think it's extremely unlikely," said Javedanfar, co-author of new book on Ahmadinejad and Iran's nuclear program. "The regime in Iran is not suicidal. The country is managed by leaders who are on the face of it fundamentalists but in fact they are very pragmatic."

For now, Israel is pouring its energies into an aggressive campaign to create awareness of the Iranian threat. Olmert traveled to China this month, seeking reassurance that Beijing opposed a nuclear-armed Iran. A group of right-wing political figures in Israel is trying to pursue legal proceedings against Ahmadinejad on the charge of incitement to commit genocide because of his threats against Israel and the Jewish people.

Sneh said Israel would wait patiently to see whether Iran complies with the 60-day U.N. deadline, which expires in mid-February, to halt its uranium enrichment program.

If Tehran doesn't, Israel should pursue tough sanctions against Iran, Sneh says, including halting the flow of gasoline to Iran and cutting off Tehran from credit in European financial markets.

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But there are fears that tough sanctions may backfire. Speaking in Paris yesterday Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called for a resumption of negotiations with Iran. He worried that sanctions would only escalate the conflict.

"My worry right now is that each side is sticking to its guns," ElBaradei said, according to the Associated Press. "We need someone to reach out."

jmurphy@baltsunnews.com


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