According to The Sunday Times, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered his nation's military to be ready by the end of March, for possible strikes against secret Iranian nuclear facilities.
Defense sources in Israel told the paper that the March deadline would represent the "point of no return," when Iran would have the capability to enrich sufficient quantities of uranium, allowing them to produce a nuclear weapon in 2-4 years. The Times also reports that selected commando units and Israeli F-15I squadrons have been placed on highest alert, in preparation for a possible attack. The F-15I is the Israeli version of the U.S. F-15 Strike Eagle, a long-range attack aircraft purchased specifically for potential action against Iran.
The Sunday Times article is interesting, since it envisions a joint air/land attack, a scenario that has also postulated by western intelligence analysts. But the Times account also seems to be a bit off the mark, hinting that major planning and operational preparations may still be underway. I believe the Israelis have had plans for an Iran raid on the books for some time; at this point, they would probably require only a bit of fine-tuning, rehearsal and (of course), the go-ahead from the Prime Minister.
In support of this theory, let me offer a brief summary of an exchange between Israeli Air Force officers and their USAF counterparts that occurred almost a year ago. The meeting was part of a routine exchange program that has existed for many years--nothing unusual there, the USAF (like the rest of our military) has bilateral relationships with a number of foreign partners.
During the referenced exchange, the topic of Iran immediately surfaced. The Israelis asked pointed questions about Iranian and U.S. capabilities. While the USAF participants were non-committal in their answers, the Israeli questions suggested planning for an Iran operation was either in its late stages, or had been concluded. The questions about Iran appeared design to confirm Israeli intelligence assessments, while the queries about U.S. capabilities focused on our ability to detect an IAF operation.
While the Israelis have the ability to deliver a sizeable military blow against Iran, there are limits on what the IPP and/or ground forces might accomplish. Consider potential routes of flight. It's unlikely Israel would jeopardize its close relationship with Ankara by flying through Turkish airspace. A southern route--across or around Saudi Arabia--increases flight time and the risk of detection. The third route (through Jordan and Iraq) runs the risk of an inadvertent encounter between U.S. and Israeli forces.
Other factors complicate the planning process. Israel has only a handful of KC-707 tankers, needed to refuel F-15Is and other fighter aircraft in flight. The limited number of tankers, coupled with required fuel off-loads, restricts the overall size of the strike package, and the number of targets that could be attacked. Those restrictions, coupled with Tehran's efforts to disperse of its nuclear program, mean that Israel cannot deliver a decisive blow against Iran. According to some estimates, even a successful Israeli strike would result in no more than a 1-2 year delay in Iran's nuclear program.
The attack would also invite an Iranian missile attack against Israeli cities, using SHAHAB-3 medium-range missiles carrying conventional, chemical or biological warheads. Israel has an extensive anti-missile defense system, but it is not foolproof. If a single Iranian missile "got through," Israel would almost certainly respond with a counterstrike, possibly using JERICHO II missiles, which can carry a nuclear warhead. That, in turn, could lead to a wider, regional conflict, leaving the U.S. in a precarious position, diplomatically, politically and militarily. While Israel certainly has military options it can use against Iran, these options are far from optimum, and fraught with potential dangers, both for the Israelis and their allies. On the other hand, those risks may be worth taking when you consider the alternative--an increasingly belligerent and (eventually) nuclear-armed Iran.