Israeli fighter jets flew 1,500 kms across the Mediterranean this month, in a dry run for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Tehran has threatened to treat such a raid as a declaration of war. As the Middle East braces itself for a stand-off of epic proportions, how close is the region to that nightmare scenario?
The meeting at the home of Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not supposed to be public. The man invited into Olmert's official residence in Jerusalem was Aviam Sela, architect of Operation Opera in 1981, when Israel launched a long-range strike against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. Regarded as a brilliant aviation tactician, in particular in the field of in-flight refuelling, Olmert's office tried to play down the meeting. But the rumours in Israel's defence establishment were already flying.
Sela, according to sources close to the meeting, had been called in so that Olmert could ask his opinion on the likely effectiveness of a similar raid to Opera on the nuclear installations of Iran.
Peace in the Middle East depends on Sela's and Israel's answer. Yesterday, responding to the Israel's increasingly bellicose language, Iran's top Revolutionary Guards Commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, warned that it would respond to any attack by hitting Israel with missiles and threatened to control the oil shipping passage through the Straits of Hormuz.
If Israel were to attack it would have to overcome considerable practical problems. There is no one who believes that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be anything like Opera, when eight F-16s and a similar number of F-15s crept into Iraq. For one thing, in pursuing its nuclear ambitions, Iran took note of the Osirak lessons. Its facilities, including a light water reactor at Bushehr and the controversial uranium enrichment process at Natanz, are dispersed and, in the case of Natanz, protected by up to 23 metres of hardened concrete.
To destroy the uranium centrifuge halls at Natanz alone, analysts have argued, might require up to 80 5,000lb penetrating bombs dropped in almost simultaneous pairs to allow the second bomb to burrow through the crater of the first. Opera required just a handful of bombs.
To strike even the bare minimum of so-called target sets associated with Natanz and Bushehr without the assistance of US cruise missiles fired from their ships in the Persian Gulf would require a massive military effort and, according to the Israeli air force's own assessments, might risk the loss of large numbers of its aircraft for a temporary impact.
But the rumours keep circulating and the hushed briefings are multiplying. In the Israeli Prime Minister's traditional round of interviews on the eve of Passover earlier this year, Olmert vowed that Iran 'will not be nuclear'.
Since then, a series of senior Israeli officials have added their own warnings of the threat of an Israeli strike. Most strident has been Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz who said earlier this month that Israel would have no choice but to attack Iran.
Other officials, too, such as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Israeli ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor, have made less inflammatory remarks but in a similar vein.
If the rhetoric, coming in the midst of an effort by the so-called G5+1 to persuade Iran to accept incentives to suspend uranium enrichment, is alarming, then so too are Israel's ostentatious preparations for war.
Earlier this month, the Israeli Air Force conducted one of the largest aerial exercises in its history, flying 100 F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, supported by midair fuel tankers and rescue helicopters, 1,500kms west over the Mediterranean. That precisely matches the distance from Israel to Iran's nuclear facilities.
And while some of the messages amount to signalling, to warn Iran as well as the EU and the US that Israel does not intend its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East to be challenged, it is clear that Israel has launched an aggressive information campaign apparently designed to soften up public opinion for the case for war, reminiscent of the run-up to the war against Iraq. Indeed, some of the same cast are back on stage, not least the former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who has loudly been making the case for an Israeli strike.
Academics and journalists who have recently visited Israel have come back from meetings convinced the country is getting ready for war. The campaign has been assisted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) in the US and the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre in the UK, two influential Jewish lobby groups who have brought over experts to brief the media.
Last week, Bicom invited journalists to meet Shmuel Bar, a former military intelligence officer and civil servant in the Prime Minister's Office. Now an academic, Bar writes on Iranian defence doctrine. On Monday the same organisation will be hosting a member of Israel's security cabinet, Isaac 'Bouji' Herzog, who once again will answer questions, among other issues, on the threat posed by Iran.
And at the centre of the present flurry of activity is the question of exactly what threat is posed. The National Intelligence Estimate, the official view of the US intelligence community is that Iran ceased work on its secret weapons programme in 2003 (a view disowned by George Bush). Israel's assessment is that Tehran is two years from a bomb.
The mutual suspicion between Israel and Iran is at historic levels. Israel cites the existential danger posed by an Iranian regime that has suggested that the Jewish state would 'vanish from the page of time'.
Iran points to statements such as the one made last week by the Israeli Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defence chief. In an interview published in the Russian press, Ben-Eliezer said that Iran would be annihilated if it tried to attack Israel. In truth, Israel's concerns are as much concerned with regional strategic issues as they are with the threat posed by Tehran, and in particular maintaining the status of sole nuclear power in the region. A repeat of the 2006 attack on Tehran's ally Hizbollah in Lebanon would be more difficult to contemplate with a nuclear Iran. By the same argument, a nuclear Iran might embolden not only Hizbollah but Hamas in Gaza, too.
What is clear is that the push inside the Israeli establishment for a strike is not being driven by the timetable of Iran's mastery of the technical aspects alone, but by geopolitical considerations. That point was reinforced by Bar last week when he identified a window of opportunity for a strike on Iran - ahead of the November presidential election in the United States which could see Barack Obama take power, and possibly engage with Syria and Iran. An Obama presidency would close that window for Israel, says Bar.
'The support is almost unanimous for this in Israel. One hundred percent. I don't think there is anybody within Israel who sees Iran's threats as rhetoric. So the question is, when do we reach that bridge?' he said, adding that the West is naive to believe that any kind of negotiation will work. 'The only thing that can stop Israel's intent [to bomb] would be extremely robust steps on the part of the West - a blockade of Iranian refined oil, something that would indicate that steps were meant to force regime change. Since that is not on the cards, only bombing Iran will work.
'If it's an Israeli attack they will put pressure on Iran's Arab neighbours to respond to the problem also. It will be counter-productive for Iran to launch a major attack on Israel.
'So they will launch a few rockets at us; that is not devastating for Israel,' he said with a shrug. Israel's case, as put by Bar, is that 'most of the Arab Middle East will side with the hope that Israel does the job and not the US. And make no mistake that they all want the job done. They will condemn it in public of course and then get on with their lives,' he said.
Har added that there would probably be another war with Lebanon - 'a month or two months, that is as long as the Middle East has wars for. We can easily cope with that. That's the nature of life in this region. We will set the Iranian programme back and yes, then we will need to come and take it out of existence again after that timeline. There will be no total conclusion, I hesitate to call it the "final solution", but there are no such solutions.'
But despite Israel's insistence that it has the will to go it alone, it is aware that it must secure at the very least the agreement of the US to turn a blind eye. And there are signs that the Bush White House is deeply split on the issue of any possible Israeli military strike against Iran.
Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney and the remnants of the neoconservative lobby in Washington are believed to be sympathetic to the idea. However, there are also those in strong positions, such as Defence Secretary Robert Gates and some senior military chiefs, who are thought to be privately opposed to such a move. 'If it were up to Bush and Cheney they would want to see this thing done,' said Larry Johnson, a former top CIA analyst. 'But they are now up against a lot of fundamental military realities that make it hard. The military has been pushing back against this.'
Right-wing think-tanks, however, such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have been vocal in their advocation of confronting Iran. Indeed, the institute recently produced a report on a theoretical military attack on Iran authored by Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt, entitled 'The Last Resort: Consquences of Preventive Military Action Against Iran'.
The study fell short of recommending such an attack but it did provide an exhaustive argument on why and how such an attack would work. That led critics to dub it a blueprint for war with Iran. It suggested that the possible best line of attack would in fact not be against Tehran's nuclear programme but against its oil industry, thus cutting off the source of Iran's current wealth. 'The political shock of losing the oil income would cause Iran to rethink its stance,' the report suggested.
It comes at a time when a resolution has been put forward in Congress calling for a naval blockade of Iran led by US warships. The proposal calls for the United States to lead an international effort to cut off the country by sea, something that would almost certainly by seen as an act of war by Iran. The resolution has got huge support from Israeli politicians and the country's highly effective lobbying industry in Washington, led perhaps inevitably by Aipac, which has made the issue its legislative priority. 'The war drums are beating. There is no doubt about that,' said Johnson.
A recent flurry of bilateral meetings between senior US and Israeli military officials in recent weeks has contributed to a sense that planning for a strike may be far advanced. Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, travelled to Israel last week for the second time in seven months, cutting short a tour of Europe to meet with Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel's military chief.
Also last week, a senior Israeli foreign ministry official reportedly travelled to Vienna for a rare meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency to encourage them to work more quickly on strategies to block Iran's nuclear programme. Although an American government spokesman in Washington said the meeting had been scheduled several months in advance, he added: 'Obviously, when Chairman Mullen goes to Israel and speaks with the Israelis, they will no doubt discuss the threat posed by Iran.'
Paradoxically, Israel has adopted a much less confrontational approach elsewhere in the region: there is the admittedly tenuous Gaza ceasefire and a prisoner swap with the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah is close. There are indirect talks under way with the Syrians and Israel has called for a direct dialogue with Lebanon. Talks with the Palestinians, however frail, none the less continue.
And amid the talk of windows of opportunity and the dry runs for missile strikes, more moderate voices are managing to make themselves heard. Ephraim Halevy, a former head of the intelligence agency Mossad, told a meeting of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem on Tuesday that Iran's nuclear ambitions did not represent an existential threat to Israel.
'I am convinced that Israel cannot be destroyed,' Halevy said. 'We should not sink into the doldrums of "Israel is on the verge of extinction".' Ultimately, he said, the United States would talk to Iran, and Israel needed to be part of that dialogue.
Martin Van Creveld, Israel's leading military historian, said there were some in the Israeli government who were indeed serious about a military option. But he said the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would probably not be affected by Israel flexing its military muscles. 'I would be very surprised if the Iranians cave in. I think they are going to follow the same road as every nuclear country has followed since the 1960s [including Israel]; namely they are going to build nuclear weapons without admitting it,' he said. 'And I don't see this made the world into a worse place. I am convinced the outcome is going to be a balance of power and I personally think that a nuclear Iran may not be such a bad thing for the world... Iran is a third-world country. I don't see why people are so afraid of it.'
Prime Minister Olmert, and the hawks around him, may take some convincing of that.
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