Israel Asked US for Green Light to Bomb Nuclear Sites in Iran

A view of the nuclear enrichment plant of Natanz in central Iran. Photograph: EPA

Israel Asked US for Green Light to Bomb Nuclear Sites in Iran

US president told Israeli prime minister he would not back attack on Iran, senior European diplomatic sources tell Guardian

Israel gave serious thought this spring to launching a military
strike on Iran's nuclear sites but was told by President George W Bush
that he would not support it and did not expect to revise that view for
the rest of his presidency, senior European diplomatic sources have
told the Guardian.

The then prime minister, Ehud Olmert, used
the occasion of Bush's trip to Israel for the 60th anniversary of the
state's founding to raise the issue in a one-on-one meeting on May 14,
the sources said. "He took it [the refusal of a US green light] as
where they were at the moment, and that the US position was unlikely to
change as long as Bush was in office", they added.

The sources
work for a European head of government who met the Israeli leader some
time after the Bush visit. Their talks were so sensitive that no
note-takers attended, but the European leader subsequently divulged to
his officials the highly sensitive contents of what Olmert had told him
of Bush's position.

Bush's decision to refuse to offer any
support for a strike on Iran appeared to be based on two factors, the
sources said. One was US concern over Iran's likely retaliation, which
would probably include a wave of attacks on US military and other
personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on shipping in the
Persian Gulf.

The other was US anxiety that Israel would not
succeed in disabling Iran's nuclear facilities in a single assault even
with the use of dozens of aircraft. It could not mount a series of
attacks over several days without risking full-scale war. So the
benefits would not outweigh the costs.

Iran has repeatedly said
it would react with force to any attack. Some western government
analysts believe this could include asking Lebanon's Shia movement
Hizbollah to strike at the US.

"It's over ten years since
Hizbollah's last terror strike outside Israel, when it hit an
Argentine-Israel association building in Buenos Aires [killing 85
people]", said one official. "There is a large Lebanese diaspora in
Canada which must include some Hizbollah supporters. They could slip
into the United States and take action".

Even if Israel were to
launch an attack on Iran without US approval its planes could not reach
their targets without the US becoming aware of their flightpath and
having time to ask them to abandon their mission.

"The shortest
route to Natanz lies across Iraq and the US has total control of Iraqi
airspace", the official said. Natanz, about 100 miles north of Isfahan,
is the site of an uranium enrichment plant.

In this context
Iran would be bound to assume Bush had approved it, even if the White
House denied fore-knowledge, raising the prospect of an attack against
the US.

Several high-level Israeli officials have hinted over
the last two years that Israel might strike Iran's nuclear facilities
to prevent them being developed to provide sufficient weapons-grade
uranium to make a nuclear bomb. Iran has always denied having such

Olmert himself raised the possibility of an attack at a
press conference during a visit to London last November, when he said
sanctions were not enough to block Iran's nuclear programme.

sanctions are effective. They have an important impact already, but
they are not sufficient. So there should be more. Up to where? Up until
Iran will stop its nuclear programme," he said.

The revelation
that Olmert was not merely sabre-rattling to try to frighten Iran but
considered the option seriously enough to discuss it with Bush shows
how concerned Israeli officials had become.

Bush's refusal to
support an attack, and the strong suggestion he would not change his
mind, is likely to end speculation that Washington might be preparing
an "October surprise" before the US presidential election. Some
analysts have argued that Bush would back an Israeli attack in an
effort to help John McCain's campaign by creating an eve-of-poll
security crisis.

Others have said that in the case of an Obama
victory, the vice-president, Dick Cheney, the main White House hawk,
would want to cripple Iran's nuclear programme in the dying weeks of
Bush's term.

During Saddam Hussein's rule in 1981, Israeli
aircraft successfully destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak
shortly before it was due to start operating.

Last September
they knocked out a buildings complex in northern Syria, which US
officials later said had been a partly constructed nuclear reactor
based on a North Korean design. Syria said the building was a military
complex but had no links to a nuclear programme.

In contrast,
Iran's nuclear facilities, which are officially described as intended
only for civilian purposes, are dispersed around the country and some
are in fortified bunkers underground.

In public, Bush gave no
hint of his view that the military option had to be excluded. In a
speech to the Knesset the following day he confined himself to telling
Israel's parliament: "America stands with you in firmly opposing Iran's
nuclear weapons ambitions. Permitting the world's leading sponsor of
terror to possess the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable
betrayal of future generations. For the sake of peace, the world must
not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.''

Mark Regev, Olmert's
spokesman, tonight reacted to the Guardian's story saying: "The need to
prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is raised at every meeting
between the prime minister and foreign leaders. Israel prefers a
diplomatic solution to this issue but all options must remain on the
table. Your unnamed European source attributed words to the prime
minister that were not spoken in any working meeting with foreign

Three weeks after Bush's red light, on June 2, Israel
mounted a massive air exercise covering several hundred miles in the
eastern Mediterranean. It involved dozens of warplanes, including
F-15s, F-16s and aerial refueling tankers.

The size and scope
of the exercise ensured that the US and other nations in the region saw
it, said a US official, who estimated the distance was about the same
as from Israel to Natanz.

A few days later, Israel's deputy
prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, told the paper Yediot Ahronot: "If Iran
continues its programme to develop nuclear weapons, we will attack it.
The window of opportunity has closed. The sanctions are not effective.
There will be no alternative but to attack Iran in order to stop the
Iranian nuclear programme."

The exercise and Mofaz's comments
may have been designed to boost the Israeli government and military's
own morale as well, perhaps, to persuade Bush to reconsider his veto.
Last week Mofaz narrowly lost a primary within the ruling Kadima party
to become Israel's next prime minister. Tzipi Livni, who won the
contest, takes a less hawkish position.

The US announced two
weeks ago that it would sell Israel 1,000 bunker-busting bombs. The
move was interpreted by some analysts as a consolation prize for Israel
after Bush told Olmert of his opposition to an attack on Iran. But it
could also enhance Israel's attack options in case the next US
president revives the military option.

The guided bomb unit-39
(GBU-39) has a penetration capacity equivalent to a one-tonne bomb.
Israel already has some bunker-busters.

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