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Could an Israeli air strike stop Iran's nuclear program?

Israel does have the capability to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities,
but such an operation would be very complex and costly, politically.

By Staff writer / October 13, 2009

An Israeli F-16 takes off from Ramon Air Base in southern Israel. A strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be more complex than attacks Israel has launched against Iraq and Syria.

Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters


Could Israel attack Iran?

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The short answer is yes, but it's unlikely that Israel could destroy all of Iran's nuclear sites, and it would run the risk of leaving behind an angrier and even more committed enemy.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. But Tehran's declaration in late September of a second, previously undisclosed, uranium enrichment facility has heightened Western suspicions that it seeks weapons as well – and may have additional secret facilities. The US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany met on Oct. 1 with Iran in Geneva for nuclear talks but reached no concrete results, though all parties agreed to meet again before the end of October.

Israel has in recent months repeatedly warned against indefinite talks, declaring Iran's nuclear ambitions to be the most urgent threat to the region. Though the effectiveness and wisdom of an Israeli strike are matters for debate, Israel has made clear it's a serious option.

When Dan Halutz, the former head of Israel's air force, was asked a few years ago to what lengths Israel would be willing to go to stop Iran's nuclear program, he famously said: "2,000 kilometers" – roughly the distance between Israel and Iran's main nuclear sites.

Can Israel stop Iran's nuclear program?

The consensus among experts is that an Israeli attack could slow Iran's nuclear progress for a few years, but would be unlikely to stop it. Why? Iran is prepared.

Israel's lightning strike that destroyed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 is often spoken of as a model for potential Israeli action against Iran, along with a 2007 strike on an unguarded, unfinished nuclear plant in Syria.

The Iraqi and Syrian targets were single, above-ground sites. Attacking Iran is a much different proposition: It involves multiple sites and underground facilities, and would require Israeli jets to fly far longer distances and potentially face more advanced enemy weapons.

"It would be a very complex operation," says Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom (ret.), former head of strategic planning for the Israeli military's general staff and now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "I don't think you can make the comparison to Osirak or Syria. In those cases it was one target ... and the ability of those two countries to do anything [against Israel] was nonexistent."

Iran has at least 17 widely dispersed nuclear sites in addition to the main facility at Natanz, built underground with at least some measures to withstand the "bunker buster" bombs in Israel's arsenal.

Brom says estimating the efficacy of an attack is difficult, but that it could probably slow Iran's nuclear program by about five years at most.

How would an attack be carried out?