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Israeli threats about Iran -- crying wolf or laying groundwork?

August 17, 2012 |  5:00 am

Israelis collect gas masks at a Jerusalem mall
They're passing out gas masks in Jerusalem and testing a new text-messaging system for alerting Israelis to incoming rockets.

The civil defense preparations follow a week of renewed warnings by Israeli officials that airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities may be imminent, despite U.S. misgivings, to thwart Tehran's alleged pursuit of nuclear bomb-making capability.

GlobalFocusWestern intelligence reports have consistently described Iran's nuclear program as many months, if not years, away from being able to produce a nuclear-armed missile. The Islamic Republic hasn't even made the decision to retool its civilian programs for military production, nonproliferation experts say.

Still, Israeli says that the window of opportunity to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb is closing and that the time for a preemptive strike is now, even with the U.S. presidential election less than three months away and the Middle East already engulfed in war and revolution.

The drumbeat for attacking Iran has been heard periodically in Israel for more than a decade. Some international security experts ascribe the latest crescendo to seasonal saber-rattling that is no more likely than previous threats to lead to Israel going it alone on a provocative strike. But few dismiss the strident warnings of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, as cries of "wolf" that can be safely ignored.

"The Israelis don’t distinguish between Iran having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon and having the actual weapon," said Aaron David Miller at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, who served as Middle East advisor to six U.S. secretaries of State.

Israeli leaders, though split on the wisdom of attacking Iran without U.S. endorsement, are convinced that they face annihilation by the Islamic Republic should Tehran acquire nuclear weapons, Miller said. He expects Israel to make good on its threats to attack Iran in the near future, but not before the U.S. presidential election, which could be influenced by a new regional conflict that an attack would probably provoke.

"I just don’t believe there is a compelling case for the government of Israel to undertake such a risky action between now and November. Nothing is going to change that will substantially make their job harder or easier by waiting," Miller said.

Satellite surveillance of Iranian nuclear facilities suggests that Tehran has fortified the Fordow uranium-enrichment plant against a possible Israeli missile attack and cleaned up suspected traces of a nuclear test at its Parchin site, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security reported this month. But a March report by the institute described Iran as being in a poor position to produce weapons covertly and unlikely to even attempt a "breakout" for military applications this year.

"I see this as exercising leverage on the Iranians and on the United States, as well as preparing the Israeli public for the consequences of an attack if it occurs," said Allen L. Keiswetter, a retired 36-year veteran of the State Department now teaching Middle East studies at the University of Maryland.

For Iran to pose an imminent nuclear threat to Israel, it would have to enrich its current uranium stockpiles to weapons-grade quality, build the warhead and develop the rocketry to deliver it, Keiswetter said. Tehran is probably three to five years away from completing all those elements, he said.

"But it’s what the Israelis think that matters," he observed. Surrounded by clashes in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Syria's civil war and Arab militia threats from Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Israel's actions on the Iranian nuclear matter may be driven as much by psychology as security strategy, Keiswetter said.

Public opinion weighs against Israel going it alone against Iran, as shown in poll results released Thursday by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University. Almost 61% of Israelis surveyed were opposed to striking Iran without the U.S. military behind the action. President Shimon Peres, Israeli Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz and the newly appointed Cabinet minister for civil defense, Avi Dichter, have warned that bombing Iran now would provoke retaliatory missile strikes on Israel, potentially killing hundreds of civilians and giving Tehran fresh incentive to rush a bomb into production.

The naysayers on unilateral Israeli action may have logic on their side, analysts say, but the hawks are building momentum for a strike and preparing the public for possible retaliation.

In his column this week, Foreign Policy magazine Editor-at-Large David Rothkopf observes that Israeli threats against Iran "come with the seasons," making it difficult to take them seriously.

"But it is worth remembering," he noted, "that the punch line of the story about the little boy who cried wolf is that, ultimately, the wolf shows up."

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Follow Carol J. Williams at twitter.com/cjwilliamslat

Photo: Israeli shoppers at a Jerusalem mall pick up gas masks Thursday. Civil defense authorities have been distributing the protective gear as talk of launching airstrikes against Iran stirs public fears of retaliatory bombing. Credit: Jim Hollander / European Pressphoto Agency

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