JERUSALEM - Israel is building up its strike capabilities amid growing anxiety over Iran's nuclear ambitions and appears confident that a military attack would cripple Tehran's atomic program, even if it can't destroy it.
Such talk could be more threat than reality. However, Iran's refusal to accept Western conditions is worrying Israel as is the perception that Washington now prefers diplomacy over confrontation with Tehran.
The Jewish state has purchased 90 F-16I fighter planes that can carry enough fuel to reach Iran, and will receive 11 more by the end of next year. It has bought two new Dolphin submarines from Germany reportedly capable of firing nuclear-armed warheads — in addition to the three it already has.
And this summer it carried out air maneuvers in the Mediterranean that touched off an international debate over whether they were a "dress rehearsal" for an imminent attack, a stern warning to Iran or a just a way to get allies to step up the pressure on Tehran to stop building nukes.
According to foreign media reports, Israeli intelligence is active inside Iranian territory. Israel's military censor, who can impose a range of legal sanctions against journalists operating in the country, does not permit publication of details of such information in news reports written from Israel.
The issue of Iran's nuclear program took on new urgency this week after U.S. officials rejected Tehran's response to an incentives package aimed at getting it to stop sensitive nuclear activity — setting the stage for a fourth round of international sanctions against the country.
Israel vows response to 'existential threat'
Israel, itself an undeclared nuclear power, sees an atomic bomb in Iranian hands as a direct threat to its existence.
Israel believes Tehran will have enriched enough uranium for a nuclear bomb by next year or 2010 at the latest. The United States has trimmed its estimate that Iran is several years or as much as a decade away from being able to field a bomb, but has not been precise about a timetable. In general U.S. officials think Iran isn't as close to a bomb as Israel claims, but are concerned that Iran is working faster than anticipated to add centrifuges, the workhorses of uranium enrichment.
"If Israeli, U.S., or European intelligence gets proof that Iran has succeeded in developing nuclear weapons technology, then Israel will respond in a manner reflecting the existential threat posed by such a weapon," said Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, speaking at a policy forum in Washington last week.
"Israel takes (Iranian President) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statements regarding its destruction seriously. Israel cannot risk another Holocaust," Mofaz said.
The Iranian leader has in the past called for Israel's elimination, though his exact remarks have been disputed. Some translators say he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map," while others say a better translation would be "vanish from the pages of time" — implying Israel would disappear on its own rather than be destroyed.
Iran insists its uranium enrichment is meant only for electricity generation, not a bomb — an assertion that most Western nations see as disingenuous.
Israeli policymakers and experts have been debating for quite some time whether it would even be possible for Israel to take out Iran's nuclear program. The mission would be far more complicated than a 1981 Israeli raid that destroyed Iraq's partially built Osirak nuclear reactor, or an Israeli raid last year on what U.S. intelligence officials said was another unfinished nuclear facility in Syria.
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In Iran, multiple atomic installations are scattered throughout the country, some underground or bored into mountains — unlike the Iraqi and Syrian installations, which were single aboveground complexes.
Still, the Syria action seemed to indicate that Israel would also be willing to use force preemptively against Iran.
"For Israel this is not a target that cannot be achieved," said Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, former head of Israel's army intelligence.
However, it's unlikely Israel would carry out an attack without approval from the United States.
Recent signs that Washington may be moving away from a military option — including a proposal to open a low-level U.S. diplomatic office in Tehran and a recent decision to allow a senior U.S. diplomat to participate alongside Iran in international talks in Geneva — are not sitting very well with Israel.