TEL AVIV â€” Military action would not stop Iran’s nuclear programme but could be a last resort to delay any quest for an atomic bomb, the mastermind of Israel’s 1981 air strike on the Iraqi reactor at Osiraq said on Monday.
While Israel and its US ally have not excluded the option of attacking Iran if all diplomatic efforts to curb its nuclear capability fail, independent experts believe the Islamic republic’s facilities are too dispersed and fortified to be eliminated militarily.
But David Ivry, who planned the Osiraq raid as then chief of the Israeli air force, argued against thinking in all-out terms.
â€œYou cannot eliminate an idea, a national will. But you can delay progress on a nuclear programme with the appropriate military action,â€ Ivry told Reuters. â€œThat is a valuable objective in itself.â€
Eight Israeli F-16 jets, using detachable fuel containers and relatively light bombs to extend their range, destroyed Osiraq on June 7, 1981. The Iraqi quest for atomic weapons was driven underground until UN inspectors uncovered it in 1991.
â€œWhen Israel struck Osiraq, the intention was never to get rid of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear plans. We wanted to buy time, and we succeeded in doing that,â€ Ivry said.
Iran has denied seeking an atomic bomb, saying its nuclear programme is for energy needs only.
It has suspended uranium enrichment, a process that can produce bombs, at the behest of France, Britain and Germany. But Washington wants Tehran referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions if it does not scrap the programme.
Israel, believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, has made no secret of seeking means to confront Iran militarily. But it denies planning to attack its arch-foe unilaterally.
However, Israeli officials say they have assessed that Iran will obtain the know-how to make atomic weapons within months. That is a more pressing prognosis than Washington’s, suggesting Israel could yet go it alone.
â€œA country decides when to act against the enemy based on its assessment of when the threat has become insufferable. You set a deadline beyond which you believe you will lose the option of acting,â€ Ivry said. â€œWith Osiraq, it was the fact that the Iraqis were about to bring uranium into the reactor.â€
Distance no object
Although a fleet of advanced F-16i jets has extended the Jewish state’s reach into the Gulf, analysts doubt an Israeli strike could deal with the dozens of nuclear facilities in Iran, a state much bigger than Iraq and with formidable air defences.
â€œIsrael’s best option would be a simultaneous multi-pronged strike using different routes, for example through Jordan and Iraq as well as the Mediterranean route through Turkey and or Azerbaijan,â€ Kaveh Afrasiabi, a political analyst at Tehran University, said in a recent published article.
â€œYet at present neither option is available to Israel… given Iran’s cordial relations with its neighbours and the fears and concerns of those neighbours of a severe Iranian backlash in case they permit their air space for an Israeli attack on Iran.â€
The warplanes that bombed Osiraq overflew Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which were then formally at war with Israel. But Ivry said seeking permission would not be necessary.
â€œI do not know of any country that would ask permission of another [to use its air space]. Doing so would compromise the secrecy of the mission, and approval would not be forthcoming anyway. When dealing with a mission seen as crucial for national security, such issues are irrelevant,â€ said Ivry.
The retired general also disputed the assumption that all or most of Iran’s facilities would have to be tackled in a strike.
â€œIt is enough to hit the key component of the production cycle to put the whole operation out of action,â€ he said.
â€œGiven the sensitivity of the technologies in question, a strike that simply shakes the structure housing them is usually sufficient to cause irreparable damage. Total destruction of the target is not necessary or even desirable.â€
And although an â€œOsiraq optionâ€ against Iran is a matter of widespread speculation, Ivry suggested that Israel could still have tricks in store if it decided to proceed with a strike.
â€œThe Iranians attacked Osiraq twice before we did [in the Iran-Iraq war]. Each time, the Iraqis bolstered their defences at the site. So even then, we did not really have the element of surprise in terms of the overall concept of a strike,â€ he said.
â€œIf and when Iran is attacked, I think I can assure you it will come as a surprise to everyone.â€