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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.

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Israel would probably use F-15 or F-16 fighter jets, which would have to fly 1,100 miles to reach Natanz and further for targets such as the nuclear reactor at Bushehr in the south. That distance is near the outer limit of such an aircraft's ability, though the planes can go longer distances by attaching additional fuel tanks or re-fueling in midair. The most direct routes go over Saudi Arabia, some via Iraq.

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Though Saudi Arabia is unlikely to engage Israeli aircraft, and Iraq has no capabilities of its own, neither country is likely to officially approve such an attack and would be unlikely to participate in search and rescue efforts if an Israeli plane is damaged. An Israeli plane forced to land in either country would prove a diplomatic nightmare.

How might Iran respond?

The Iranians would undoubtedly try to shoot the planes down during their roughly 400-mile trip in its airspace. Iran has 29 Russian-built Tor-M1 mobile missile defense systems, which the country publicly unveiled at a military parade in late September, during which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed to cut the hands off any attacker. Iran recently tested missiles that, like previous versions, have the ability to reach Israel and US military bases in the region.

Other options for retaliation against Israel would be through Hezbollah, the movement Iran has helped arm and train that has the capacity to fire missiles and mortars at Israel from its base in southern Lebanon. Gerald Steinberg, a politics professor at Israel's Bar Ilan University who studies proliferation issues, says that while such retaliation is likely, it's something Israel would be willing to endure, since that threat is seen as far less than that of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

How likely is an attack?

The probability of an Israeli attack at the moment is very low. President Obama has opposed unilateral action by Israel, and Israeli officials appear willing to give the recently restarted nuclear dialogue with Iran at least until the end of the year. "If nothing happens in a few months and Iran is going full steam, [and] there's no greater monitoring, then I think the Israeli view will be, 'Let's go and look at our other options,' " says Professor Steinberg.

What would be the cost of a strike?

Brom says that the political costs for Israel of a unilateral attack could be huge, as could the consequences for the US.

"Iran has a very limited ability to strike out directly at Israel, but they have much more influence closer to home," he says, pointing out that retaliation against US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would be probable. "They can affect the behavior of others in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the Arab Gulf states, and they can cause much harm to the export of oil from the Gulf, which hurts everybody.

For Israel's part, he says, because its relationship with the US is "of central strategic importance" that implies that Israeli leaders will "try to delay the decision as much as possible, and when it is impossible to delay anymore then it will still be a tough and difficult decision."

Steinberg agrees. "Even the more hawkish Israelis are very aware of the costs of a military operation, not just in terms of retaliation but in long-term Israeli-Iranian relations and in the stability of the region. Military action is the last and least desirable option."