Would Israel strike first at Iran?
Israel holds the preemptive wildcard, but experts doubt Osirak-style repeat.
TEL AVIV — 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.
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. That approach still influences the Israeli defense establishment.
With Israeli intelligence agencies estimating that Iran will acquire nuclear weaponry by 2007, defense officials on occasion drop hints of a first strike. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (who was born in Iran) said in a December radio interview that Israel would try to minimize civilian casualties in such an attack.
Last week, Israeli army Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon said in an interview with the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot that Israel "can't rely on others'' in facing the threat from Iran.
Both countries have engaged in a cat-and-mouse game of missile tests in recent weeks. Iran has said it would strike at Israel with its ballistic missiles if Israel attacks its nuclear facilities.
"For Israel it's quite clear, that we're not going to wait for a threat to be realized,'' says Ephraim Inbar, head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "For self-defense we have to act in a preemptive mode.''
Nevertheless, a lone Israeli strike reminiscent of 1981 seems less likely at a time when US forces are sitting in neighboring Iraq, officials and analysts say. By acting independently, Israel would be forgoing the intelligence and manpower of the better-positioned American military.
The Osirak strike generated a chorus of international condemnation that included US Secretary of State Alexander Haig and UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. But beyond a temporary halt in F-16 fighter jet shipments from the US, there was no lasting fallout.
Unlike 1981, the blame for such an attack today would not be limited to Israel. The US would be perceived in the Muslim world as being complicit - probably boosting the motivation of extremists to carry out terrorist attacks on Western targets.
"Certainly it would be seen as a continuation of what the Americans did in Iraq,'' says Bruce Maddy Weizman, a fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. "Israel and US are widely perceived to be acting in concert.''
For their part, Israeli officials argue that Iran's ambition is to use nuclear prominence to threaten Saudi Arabia, Europe, and US influence in the Gulf.
That position makes it harder to justify another Osirak, because such an action would contradict Israeli claims that Iran's nuclear program is a global threat rather than a regional one.
"We don't want to create the impression that it's on our shoulders,'' says Israeli legislator Yuval Steinmetz, chair of the parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee. "This time it's not up to Israel to save the world.''