Britain expects Israel to attack Iran by Christmas

The Parchin military base near Tehran, seen in a satellite photo, serves as a center for research and development of missile weaponry. It has a number of fortified tunnels and bunkers for carrying out experiments. (IAEA)

JERUSALEM (JWN and agencies)—It is the UK government’s strategic assessment that Israel will carry out a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons development sites within the next two months, according to a report in the Daily Mail newspaper.

The report quotes high-level officials as saying the attack is expected “as early as Christmas” and will include logistical support by the United States. It is anticipated such an attack would severely cripple Iran’s attempts to build nuclear weapons, a program confirmed this week by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement that Tuesday’s report by the IAEA “completely discredits’ Iran’s contentions that its nuclear facilities are only developing energy for peaceful purposes.” The report stated unequivocally that Iran is developing and testing components for nuclear weapons.

Hague added that Britain would press for increased economic sanctions on Iran.

While there is no international consensus on how close Iran is to manufacturing its first nuclear bomb, a Finnish nuclear scientist told Haaretz the IAEA report came as no surprise.

Dr. Olli Heinonen worked for the IAEA for 27 years, where he was deputy director-general and in charge of inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities.

“There is not much new information,” Heinonen wrote Haaretz in an e-mail from Harvard on Wednesday, referring to the IAEA report, which included much evidence that reached the UN watchdog agency years ago.

According to Haaretz, Heinonen did not mention that his former boss at the IAEA, then director Mohamed ElBaradei, either did not publish the findings or softened the way in which they were presented. In any case, ElBaradei’s successor, Yukiya Amano of Japan, decided to reveal what the IAEA has long known. Heinonen conceded that it is “good to have a comprehensive update on the military dimension.”

Heinonen said the Iranians’ main challenge in nuclear weapons development is uranium enrichment. “The bottleneck is and remains in uranium enrichment,” he wrote.

“As the report shows, progress is still slow. Iran will not able to produce high enriched uranium in sufficient quantities before the end of 2012 unless it makes substantial progress with advanced centrifuges,” said Heinonen.

“Even if Iran succeeds in that, it still needs to bring them to a semi-industrial scale, which will take until 2013. This means that they need to resolve any remaining design issues and have access, is spite of sanctions, to necessary raw materials, such as high quality maraging steel, high strength aluminum, and carbon fiber.” Therefore, Heinonen concluded, “the next year until the end of 2012 is crucial.”

With regard to increased sanctions, two senior US officials are to visit Israel next week to discuss plans for new sanctions on Iran. Washington is reportedly trying to enlist the European Union and other developed countries to blacklist Iran’s central bank, a move that would cut off all business with Iran, cripple its banking system, and destabilize its currency.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s Office published Israel’s official response to the IAEA report. “The IAEA report corroborates the position of the international community, and of Israel, that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. The significance of the report is that the international community must bring about the cessation of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, which endanger the peace of the world and of the Middle East.”