JERUSALEM - The United States plans to sell Israel $319 million worth of air-launched bombs, including 500 "bunker busters" able to penetrate Iran's underground nuclear facilities, Israeli security sources said on Tuesday.
The Haaretz newspaper quoted a Pentagon report as saying the planned procurement sought "to maintain Israel's qualitative advantage and advance U.S. strategic and tactical interests."
The United States plans to sell Israel $319 million worth of air-launched bombs, including 500 'bunker busters' able to penetrate Iran's underground nuclear facilities, Israeli security sources said on September 21, 2004. The Haaretz newspaper quoted a Pentagon report as saying the planned procurement sought 'to maintain Israel's qualitative advantage and advance U.S. strategic and tactical interests.' A GBU-27 laser guided 'bunker buster' bomb is seen in this undated file photo. Photo by Reuters
The U.S. embassy in Israel had no comment, referring queries to Washington. Israel's Defense Ministry also declined comment.
But a senior Israeli security source who confirmed the Haaretz story told Reuters: "This is not the sort of ordnance needed for the Palestinian front. Bunker busters could serve Israel against Iran, or possibly Syria."
Haaretz quoted Israeli government sources as saying the sale, including 4,500 other guided munitions, was not expected to go through until after the U.S. elections in November. Earlier this month, Haaretz said Israel sought to obtain the U.S.-made, one-ton "bunker buster" bombs for a possible future strike against arch-foe Iran's atomic development program, which the Jewish state considers a strategic threat.
"This relationship has a long history. The United States has given Israel more advanced weapons than this," a spokesman for Iran's Defense Ministry said.
"This could be psychological warfare to test us," he added.
Tehran denies hostile designs, saying its nuclear program has peaceful purposes only. This week, it rejected international calls to comply with a U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency demand that it halt all uranium-enrichment activities.
Among the nuclear facilities that Iran has declared are uranium mines near the city of Yazd, and a uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz incorporating large underground buildings that could accommodate thousands of gas centrifuges.
Western diplomats accuse Iran of having several undeclared facilities close to Tehran thought to be related to uranium enrichment, a process the United States and some other countries believe Tehran will use to produce fissile material for weapons.
The exiled Iranian opposition group known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) says Iran is constructing numerous secret facilities under its Defense Ministry.
Known by the military designations GBU-27 or GBU-28, "bunker busters" are guided by lasers or satellites and can penetrate up to 30 feet of earth and concrete. Israel may already have some of the bombs for its U.S.-supplied F-15 fighter jets.
"As they are part of the weapon set for the F-15, I would assume them to be in place," said Robert Hewson, editor of Jane's Air-Launched Weapons. He said the bombs proved effective in the 1991 Gulf war and 1990s NATO strikes on Serbian forces.
Israel, which is widely assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed nation, wants to stop Iran going atomic, but officials say diplomatic pressure on Tehran is the best method.
Many believe a military strike, especially by Israel, could kill off any chance of a diplomatic resolution or efforts by Iranian opposition groups to achieve internal reform.
"I think (military action) should be a last, last, last resort. Unlike Iraq and North Korea, there is at least some chance of bringing about an undermining of the Velayat-e Faqih's authority," former CIA director R. James Woolsey told Reuters this month, referring to Iran's ruling Islamic clerics.
Convinced Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons, Israel bombed Iraq's Osiraq reactor in 1981. While the move drew international censure, eventually many U.S. experts saw it as an important blow to Saddam's strategic weapons capabilities.
"The response of the United States was, unfortunately, negative with respect to Osiraq," Woolsey said. "The Israelis were right and everybody else was wrong, including us, in 1981."
The Osiraq strike did not stop Saddam's quest for the bomb. Instead, Iraq went underground and worked in secret until the program was uncovered by the U.N. nuclear watchdog in 1991.
© 2004 Reuters