Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Would Israel Strike First at Iran? ; Israel Holds the Preemptive Wildcard, but Experts Doubt Osirak- Style Repeat

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Would Israel Strike First at Iran? ; Israel Holds the Preemptive Wildcard, but Experts Doubt Osirak- Style Repeat

Article excerpt

Moments before dispatching Israeli pilots to bomb Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in June, 1981, army Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan is said to have depicted the importance of the mission in stark terms: "The alternative is our destruction.''

In ordering the lightning knockout, Israel served notice to its Middle Eastern foes that the Jewish state would act - even preemptively - to deprive them of a nuclear option.

Two decades later, the Osirak precedent endures. As the Bush administration steps up its rhetoric against Iran's nuclear program, the possibility of Israel following through on veiled threats to hit Iranian sites remains a wildcard.

But several Israeli experts say that the Osirak experience bears little relevance in the case of Iran and that the chances of a repeat strike are very low.

Unlike in the early 1980s when Israel found itself isolated in perceiving a threat from Iraq's nuclear program, the prospect of US- led multilateral pressure against Iran casts a unilateral strike in a more-problematic light.

With National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warning last week that the US won't tolerate a nuclear Iran, Israel is much more likely to act in tandem with its most powerful ally rather than electing to go it alone, observers say.

"The circumstances are quite different,'' says Ephraim Kam, head of the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. "If Israel is going to take any move beyond the diplomatic move, there should be better understanding in the international arena that there is no way to stop the Iranians.''

Tehran admits it has sought so-called dual-use nuclear technology in order to generate electricity, but denies it aims to build nuclear weapons.

Repeat performance?

Even the very ability of Israel's military to repeat the decisive strike achieved at Osirak appears doubtful. While the Iraqi nuclear effort was concentrated at the Osirak plant, nuclear experts say the Iranians have dispersed their program at multiple sites, some of which are hidden underground.

That makes a repeat performance of the clean and decisive blow against Iraq almost impossible, analysts say. Not only is it unclear how Israeli forces would eliminate underground centrifuge installations, but the task of locating all of Iran's nuclear targets requires a high degree of intelligence and risk.

"I don't think there's an option for a preemptive act because we're talking about a different sort of a nuclear program,'' says Shmuel Bar, a fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. "A hit-and-run preemptive attack can't guarantee much success.''

Even so, first-strike offensives have been an essential element of Israel's defensive doctrine for decades - the most famous instance being the Israeli Air Force's destruction of Egyptian air bases to open the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. …

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