25 February 2007
By Con Coughlin
Last Updated: 12:29am GMT 25/02/2007
There may not yet be gas masks in the street in Tel Aviv but no one should underestimate Israel's determination to prevent a nuclear Iran
Down on the seafront in Tel Aviv, where crowds of young Israelis are to be found taking advantage of the unseasonably warm spring sunshine this weekend, it is hard to imagine that Israel is confronting what is arguably the gravest threat to its survival since it emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust 59 years ago.
A banner carried during demonstrations in Tehran - Holocaust
Statement of intent? A banner carried during demonstrations in Tehran
The apocalyptic rantings of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the menace posed by the ayatollahs' outlawed nuclear programme are a million miles from the minds of the couples lounging in the sun sipping cold beers, or engaged in vigorously competitive games of beach volleyball.
Apart from the occasional noisy interruption as a patrol of Cobra military helicopters passes overhead on its way to Gaza, or the sullen presence of the naval patrol vessels anchored offshore on the lookout for waterborne suicide bombers, these carefree souls seem blissfully unaware of the storm clouds of war gathering over the political horizon.
"We have nothing to fear from the Iranians," Amiram Levi told me. "If they become too much of a threat we can deal with them just as we dealt with the Iraqis when they tried to build a nuclear bomb."
Amiram, a 20-year-old computer science student at Tel Aviv University, was of course referring to the daredevil raid made by Israeli fighter jets against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, which destroyed at a stroke Saddam Hussein's dreams of turning his country into a nuclear superpower.
Most Israelis believe their country will do the same again if the outside world fails to call a halt to Iran's controversial uranium enrichment programme, which few in Israel doubt is ultimately aimed at giving the ayatollahs a nuclear weapons arsenal to fulfil Ahmadinejad's pledge to erase the Jewish state from the map.
Having already suffered a near-apocalypse in the form of the Holocaust, the Jewish people have no intention of being the hapless victims of Ahmadinejad's genocidal designs. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, last month gave his most explicit warning to date that Israel was prepared to use military force to prevent Teheran from obtaining a nuclear weapon: "The Jewish people, with the scars of the Holocaust fresh on its body, cannot afford to allow itself to face threats of annihilation once again."
That single sentence sums up the consensus among most of the Israeli people. If the wider world is not prepared to take pre-emptive action to stop Iran from fulfilling its nuclear ambitions, then Israel is ready to act alone.
Normally, in times of national emergency, such as the build-up to the 2003 Iraq War, Israel is bustling with precautionary activity - civil defence organisers handing out gas masks and ensuring the bomb shelters are ready.
But today there is scant evidence of anyone preparing for a potential war. The only gas masks on display are those used by children for fancy dress, while recent press reports that the super-rich residents of Herzliya were building their own state-of-the-art nuclear bunkers were greeted with derision by less well-off citizens.
In contrast, the country's political, military and intelligence-gathering infrastructure has thrown all the resources it can muster at the challenge of neutralising Iran's nuclear capability.
"The amount of effort we are putting into this single issue is unprecedented in the history of the State of Israel," said a senior Israeli security official who works on the strategic committee that has been set up to deal with the Iran threat, which is personally chaired by Olmert.
The committee's main function is to ensure the closest possible liaison on the latest intelligence and military developments. It is also responsible for maintaining a close dialogue with countries supportive of Israel's concerns, particularly the United States, which has seconded officials to work alongside the Israelis.
The committee has yet to have any contact with Britain, although it is hoped that a dialogue will begin "in the not-too-distant future".
Nor should anyone be in any doubt as to the extreme sense of urgency that is driving the Israeli government's activity. To ensure that the country has the best available resources at its disposal, Olmert announced last week that Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, Israel's overseas intelligence service, had been asked to postpone his retirement until at least the end of 2008.
Dagan, the son of Holocaust survivors, has already served six years in the post, during which time he has become Israel's leading expert on Iran's nuclear programme. "The last thing I want is to have to change horses at a time like this," Olmert remarked after Dagan agreed to serve the extra term.
On the military side, Olmert has also taken the significant step of handing responsibility for preparing Israel's response to the Iranian challenge to the commander of the Israeli Air Force, Eliezer Shkedi.
Shkedi, a former F-16 fighter pilot who saw active service in Lebanon during the 1982 invasion and shot down two Syrian MiG fighters, is in charge of Iran Command, the unit responsible for dealing with any possible threat the Iranians might pose to Israel's security.
As part of the defensive preparations for a missile attack, the Israelis recently conducted a successful test-firing of the new Arrow anti-missile defence system, a development that has mainly been funded by the Pentagon.
The Arrow is the successor to the American Patriot missile system used to shoot down Saddam's Scuds during the 1991 Gulf War. But where the Patriot attacks the incoming missile as it nears its target, the Arrow is designed to intercept a hostile missile much earlier, in the upper atmosphere.
From Israel's perspective this is a crucial advance, especially if the Iranians were to attempt to fire missiles armed with nuclear warheads. "There's no point shooting down a nuclear missile once it's over Israel - the devastation would be just the same," an Israeli military officer explained this week. "The idea is to take it out long before it hits Israel."
That would mean such a missile exploding somewhere over Iraq or Jordan, thereby potentially causing widespread devastation in those countries.
"No one has done much thinking about what might happen if you exploded a nuclear weapon in the upper atmosphere," added the officer. "It's probably something people should look at."
But ensuring Israel has an effective defence against an Iranian missile attack is crucial. Iran has made it clear it will respond to any attack against its nuclear facilities, and its Shahab-3 ballistic missiles have the range to strike throughout Israel.
As for Israel's offensive plans against Iran, the Iran Command team's task is to demonstrate that Israel has the capability to act unilaterally.
"No one is going to take this threat seriously until the State of Israel can demonstrate to the outside world that we have the ability to deal with this menace on our own," said a senior security official who serves on Iran Command.
"The only way we can put pressure on the outside world to deal effectively with Iran's nuclear programme is to demonstrate that we can do this ourselves.
''Of course, we hope it doesn't come to a military solution, and we hope that this can be resolved through diplomacy. But Iran's track record is not good."
For the Israelis, taking out Iran's nuclear facilities is a very different proposition to the 1981 attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor. Back then, the Israelis had the element of surprise - the last thing the Iraqis expected to see was a squadron of Israeli warplanes in their airspace.
Iraq's nuclear programme also posed a relatively straightforward target in that all the facilities were concentrated at the Osirak complex, south of Baghdad. A few well-targeted bombs released in a single air raid were sufficient to do the job.
The Iranians, on the other hand, learning the lessons of the Osirak debacle, have scattered their resources around the country. Obvious targets, such as the controversial uranium enrichment complex at Natanz, are set in specially constructed bomb proof bunkers that would require high-precision, bunker-busting bombs to inflict any serious damage.
Yet another challenge is presented by the recent arrival of the Russian-made Tor M1 anti-aircraft missile system as part of an arms deal signed between Moscow and Teheran last year.
"Of course, attacking Iran is not going to be easy, but we cannot just sit here and let the ayatollahs develop a nuclear weapons arsenal," said a senior Israeli defence official. "Doing nothing is just not an option."
Israeli defence officials are understandably coy about revealing precisely how far advanced their plans are for launching air strikes against Iran in light of the current diplomatic offensive at the United Nations to halt Teheran's enrichment programme ending in failure.
But that the Israeli Air Force, as The Daily Telegraph exclusively discloses today, is negotiating with US coalition commanders in Iraq for permission to fly through US-controlled air space suggests Israeli military planners have overcome most of the key technical hurdles, such as in-flight refuelling and target selection.
"One of the last issues we have to sort out is how we actually get to targets in Iran," an Israeli officer involved in the military planning told me. "The only way to do this is to fly through US-controlled air space in Iraq. If we don't sort these issues out now we could have a situation where American and Israeli war planes are shooting at each other."
The pace of military planning in Israel, which has markedly accelerated since the start of the year, is being driven by Mossad's stark intelligence assessment that Iran, given the rate of progress on uranium enrichment at Natanz, could have enough fissile material for a nuclear warhead by 2009.
This is, it should be stressed, only an assessment as opposed to hard fact, and the Israeli assessment is starkly at odds with those made by other Western intelligence agencies, and by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN-sponsored body responsible for monitoring nuclear development activities worldwide.
Last week, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, said his assessment was that Iran was still five to ten years away from developing a nuclear warhead, a view that is generally supported by the British and American intelligence communities.
But the Israelis are insistent that their assessments are more realistic. "The problem is that no one really knows what is going on in Iran," said a senior Israeli security official working on Iran's nuclear brief. "Iran has consistently lied to the outside world about what its true intentions really are, and we can't allow a situation to develop where the Iranians, like North Korea, announce they have an atomic bomb, when all the so-called experts said they didn't have the capability or expertise to do it."
Israeli officials point out that IAEA inspectors are not allowed access to the main underground chamber at Natanz where uranium enrichment will soon be taking place on an industrial scale. They are also convinced that the evidence so far accumulated by IAEA officials shows that Iran has a clandestine nuclear weapons programme.
"No one who knows about this - and this includes the experts in London and Washington - is in any doubt that Iran is secretly trying to build a bomb," said the security official. "The only issue at stake is how long it will be before they get one."
If that is the case, then the only question that remains is how much longer the Israelis are prepared to wait before they take matters into their own hands.
For the moment, the Olmert government seems prepared to let the United Nations process play out, even though Israeli officials make no secret of their disdain for the way ElBaradei is handling the crisis. "He doesn't seem to care one way or another whether the Iranians get a bomb. All he wants is a quiet life," said one senior government adviser.
And there is no doubt that the Israelis would prefer their superpower protector, the United States, to do their dirty work for them if the UN-sponsored diplomacy fails to bring Teheran to its senses. But the bottom line is that if, within the next two years, the Iranians are still maintaining their rate of progress on the nuclear front, the Israelis are ready and able to act on their own if need be.
"After the September 11 attacks, we now live in an age of pre-emption," said a senior Olmert adviser. "The Jewish people have not forgotten the last time the world watched and did nothing. We are determined that shall never happen again."
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