ISRAEL’S armed forces have been ordered by
Ariel Sharon, the prime
minister, to be ready by the end of March for possible strikes on
secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran, military sources have
The order came after Israeli intelligence
warned the government that
Iran was operating enrichment facilities, believed to be small and
concealed in civilian locations.
Iran’s stand-off with the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
over nuclear inspections and aggressive rhetoric from Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who said last week that Israel
should be moved to Europe, are causing mounting concern.
The crisis is set to come to a head in
early March, when Mohamed
El-Baradei, the head of the IAEA, will present his next report on Iran.
El-Baradei, who received the Nobel peace prize yesterday, warned that
the world was “losing patience” with Iran.
A senior White House source said the
threat of a nuclear Iran was
moving to the top of the international agenda and the issue now was:
“What next?” That question would have to be answered in the next few
months, he said.
Defence sources in Israel believe the end
of March to be the “point
of no return” after which Iran will have the technical expertise to
enrich uranium in sufficient quantities to build a nuclear warhead in
two to four years.
“Israel — and not only Israel — cannot
accept a nuclear Iran,”
Sharon warned recently. “We have the ability to deal with this and
we’re making all the necessary preparations to be ready for such a
The order to prepare for a possible attack
went through the Israeli
defence ministry to the chief of staff. Sources inside special forces
command confirmed that “G” readiness — the highest stage — for an
operation was announced last week.
Gholamreza Aghazadeah, head of the Atomic
Organisation of Iran,
warned yesterday that his country would produce nuclear fuel. “There is
no doubt that we have to carry out uranium enrichment,” he said.
He promised it would not be done during
forthcoming talks with
European negotiators. But although Iran insists it wants only nuclear
energy, Israeli intelligence has concluded it is deceiving the world
and has no intention of giving up what it believes is its right to
develop nuclear weapons.
A “massive” Israeli intelligence operation
has been underway since
Iran was designated the “top priority for 2005”, according to security
Cross-border operations and signal
intelligence from a base
established by the Israelis in northern Iraq are said to have
identified a number of Iranian uranium enrichment sites unknown to the
Since Israel destroyed the Osirak nuclear
reactor in Iraq in 1981,
“it has been understood that the lesson is, don’t have one site, have
50 sites”, a White House source said.
If a military operation is approved,
Israel will use air and ground
forces against several nuclear targets in the hope of stalling Tehran’s
nuclear programme for years, according to Israeli military sources.
It is believed Israel would call on its
top special forces brigade,
Unit 262 — the equivalent of the SAS — and the F-15I strategic 69
Squadron, which can strike Iran and return to Israel without
“If we opt for the military strike,” said
a source, “it must be not
less than 100% successful. It will resemble the destruction of the
Egyptian air force in three hours in June 1967.”
Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the Israeli military
stepped up the pressure on Iran this month when he warned Israel’s
parliament, the Knesset, that “if by the end of March the international
community is unable to refer the Iranian issue to the United Nations
security council, then we can say the international effort has run its
The March deadline set for military
readiness also stems from fears
that Iran is improving its own intelligence-gathering capability. In
October it launched its first satellite, the Sinah-1, which was carried
by a Russian space launcher.
“The Iranians’ space programme is a matter
of deep concern to us,”
said an Israeli defence source. “If and when we launch an attack on
several Iranian targets, the last thing we need is Iranian early
warning received by satellite.”
Russia last week signed an estimated $1
billion contract — its
largest since 2000 — to sell Iran advanced Tor-M1 systems capable of
destroying guided missiles and laser-guided bombs from aircraft.
“Once the Iranians get the Tor-M1, it will
make our life much more
difficult,” said an Israeli air force source. “The installation of this
system can be relatively quick and we can’t waste time on this one.”
The date set for possible Israeli strikes
on Iran also coincides
with Israel’s general election on March 28, prompting speculation that
Sharon may be sabre-rattling for votes.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the frontrunner to
lead Likud into the
elections, said that if Sharon did not act against Iran, “then when I
form the new Israeli government, we’ll do what we did in the past
against Saddam’s reactor, which gave us 20 years of tranquillity”.
TEHRAN MINISTER MET MILITANTS
BEFORE NEW OFFENSIVE
Iran’s foreign minister met leading
figures from three Islamic
militant groups to co-ordinate a united front against Israel days
before a recent escalation of attacks against Israeli targets shattered
fragile ceasefires with Lebanon and the Palestinians, writes Hugh
Macleod in Damascus.
The minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, held
talks with leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah in Damascus on
Among those who attended the meeting were
Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas
leader, and a deputy leader of Islamic Jihad, which claimed
responsibility for last Monday’s suicide bombing of a shopping mall in
Netanya that killed five Israeli citizens.
Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Popular Front
for the Liberation of
Palestine- General Command, was also present. “We all confirmed that
what is going on in occupied Palestine is organically connected to what
is going on in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Lebanon,” said Jibril.
Seven days after the talks, Hezbollah
fired a volley of rockets and
mortars at Israeli targets, sparking the fiercest fighting between the
two sides since Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon five years ago.