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Air strikes against Iran nuclear program? Israel reconsiders.

Israel's former spy chief has warned against a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear program, as has the US, citing its potential to boost Iran's regime at home and endanger US troops in the Middle East.

By Correspondent / December 9, 2011

At Israel's Air Force Museum in Beersheba, a fighter jet is now a museum piece. Air superiority has given Israel an edge in the region.

Scott Peterson / Gamma-Liaison


Tel Aviv

Israel’s stance toward archrival Iran, which it suspects of developing nuclear weapons, relies largely on deterrence: The Jewish state has a decades-old reputation for carrying out risky surprise attacks against targets deemed as existential threats.

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But the ability of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to embark on a new preemptive strike may have been significantly curtailed after a pair of warnings from US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and an ex-Israeli spymaster about the potential negative fallout from such an attack.

Such predictions raise the political stakes for Israeli leaders contemplating such a move, making it less likely Mr. Netanyahu would lead Israel into battle against Iran without the support of Washington, say analysts.

"If something goes wrong, Netanyahu will be in deep trouble, because he will not be able to argue that he wasn’t warned," says Akiva Eldar, a columnist for the liberal newspaper Haaretz. "To take the risk of a confrontation with Iran without clear American support is a big risk; this is something that every Israeli understands."

Israel's track record of attacks

The precedents of such attacks are well known: This year and in 2009, Israel was believed to be behind attacks on weapons convoys in Sudan ferrying supplies to the Gaza Strip; in 2007 Israeli planes destroyed a nuclear facility in Syria believed to be part of a weapons program; and in 1981 Israeli pilots hit the Osirak nuclear facility, wiping out Iraq’s nuclear program.

The cumulative effect of such a track record "contributes to the stress level in Tehran" even if it hasn’t completely deterred the Iranian leadership from pursuing a nuclear weapons, says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

There was an uptick in anxiety in Israel in November around the time of a report by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency alleging that Tehran showed signs as recently as 2009 of continued work on a nuclear bomb.

The report’s publication came on the heels of several remarks by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggesting the possibility of a preemptive strike on Iran and an Israeli Air Force exercise in Italy simulating long-range attack missions, which no doubt enhanced the credibility of Israel's threats.

US caution makes Israeli threats less menacing

But it appears that Israel's efforts at deterrence have suffered a blow in recent weeks.

The US has engaged in public diplomacy urging Israel to keep that threat off the table while a new round of sanctions takes hold. Mr. Panetta argued last Friday in Washington that such an attack now would deal a blow to the global economy, endanger US troops in the Middle East, and risk shoring up the popularity of the Iranian regime domestically.


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