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Israel's vow of silence on Iran strike may be a message to Washington

An Arrow II missile interceptor is displayed in front of journalists at an Israeli air defence command in the Palmahim military base south of Tel Aviv May 12, 2011.


If Israeli warplanes attack Iran's nuclear sites, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to keep President Barack Obama in the dark, according to senior American intelligence officials.

Given the mutual antipathy – verging on open disdain – between the two leaders, such a snub might seem unsurprising. But far more is at stake than the chilliest relations between an American president and an Israeli leader since the United States backstopped the creation of the Jewish State six decades ago.

Claiming it will keep Washington ignorant about any decision to bomb Iran's nuclear sites – Israeli's openly mooted option of pre-emptive attacks to keep Tehran's ruling mullahs from getting nuclear weapons – may be more about posturing than any military reality.

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Previous Israeli attacks on nuclear sites – in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 – were single-strike events, against much-closer Arab countries with far-weaker air defences and all of their, still-under-construction, nuclear facilities clustered at one target site. Whether Washington was tipped off in advance remains an official secret but in neither case was American connivance needed. So plausible deniability remained.

Attacking Iran poses a vastly bigger, far riskier military operation. Unless Israel plans to use its own nuclear bombs, destroying Iran's multiple, dispersed, and sometimes deeply-buried nuclear sites will require days – perhaps weeks – of repeated air strikes with special bunker-busting bombs. It will be an bombing campaign, not a single attack.

The military complexity and difficulty of wreaking lasting damage on Tehran's hidden, heavily-defended nuclear installations is daunting.

It would be even for the American military, which has hundreds of warplanes already based in neighbouring Afghanistan, just across the narrow Persian Gulf and aboard aircraft carriers off Iran's shores.

For Israeli warplanes to reach targets in Iran they would need to fly thousands of kilometres, refuel multiple times and flout the sovereignty of one or more of Turkey, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia –all U.S. allies. Even the first strike would take many hours across airspace under constant American surveillance.

Even if Israel's first strike managed to catch Washington (as well as Tehran) by surprise, the military reality remains that any and all follow-on strikes would require – at very least – a decision by the Obama administration to sit by as the threat of a full-blown Middle East war unfolded.

Yet Israeli leaders have reportedly made oft-repeated, and unambiguous warnings to Washington that it won't tell Mr. Obama before striking Tehran.

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According to the Associated Press, Mr. Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have delivered that message to high-level U.S. visitors, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House national security adviser, the director of national intelligence and top U.S. lawmakers.

The White House and Pentagon declined to respond to the report.

Mr. Obama has said he will do whatever is necessary to prevent Tehran's ruling mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons. And, as is Oval Office routine, the president has pointedly said that "all options," meaning military action if necessary, remain on the table.

But previous presidents, both Democrat and Republican, made the same not-so-veiled threats about North Korea and yet failed to prevent Pyongyang from joining the nuclear weapons club.

Tehran insists its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.

Israel regards Iran as an existential threat – not least because Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for the end of the Jewish state.

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Both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak are due in Washington over the next 10 days. With Mr. Obama's Republican rivals accusing him of being soft on Tehran and vowing tougher action to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons, the latest Israeli sabre-rattling may be intended to send a message to Washington as much as Tehran.

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