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Ali Shaigan/FARS News Agency/AP

Arming and dangerous

Iran | As Iran moves toward gaining nuclear weapons, Israel and the United States try to apply the brakes

Issue: "Your right to vote," July 31, 2010

Iran has always claimed its nuclear ambitions are for peaceful purposes. Clandestine nuclear enrichment plants and blocked inspections of some nuclear facilities are good reasons to question those claims. Add to those an Iranian leadership with apocalyptic language and terrorist sponsorship in an already volatile region and the results could be catastrophic.

That is why the UN Security Council passed its fourth round of sanctions against Iran on June 9, with the United States three weeks later passing its toughest sanctions yet against the rogue state.

Will Iran now halt its uranium enrichment program and open all facilities to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)? Many analysts are doubtful and "Plan C" is being discussed, debated, and undoubtedly prepared for should the United States decide it's necessary. And in the aftermath of the Obama administration's failed diplomacy attempts with Iran in 2009 and 2010 and sanctions that are garnering little optimism, some say Israel has a plan of its own.

Iran's nuclear strides

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Developments over the past 10 months in Iran's nuclear enrichment program have increased concerns even among those previously undaunted by the flagrant actions of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cronies.

On Sept. 25, 2009, President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown revealed the discovery of a clandestine underground nuclear facility near the Iranian city of Qom. And on Feb. 25, 2010, Iran announced that its nuclear plant in Natanz had begun enriching small amounts of uranium to 20 percent-levels Iran claims will be used to fuel a reactor that makes medical isotopes but others say puts the country on the fast track to acquiring a nuclear bomb.

An IAEA report released just days prior to Iran's jolting admission claims that the country's secret programs were operational beyond 2004-several years longer than previously believed-and that they were actively seeking a nuclear weapon.

No one knows how long it could take Iranian scientists to sprint to the finish line. The IAEA's May 31 report claims that Iran now has enough nuclear fuel to make two bombs if they start enriching to 90 percent purity, the level necessary for a nuclear weapon. Iran's recent jump from enriching to 4 percent purity (enough to run nuclear power reactors) to 20 percent purity is cause for concern but not yet proof that Iran is in the final stages.

And although the Natanz plant just added a second set of centrifuges (cylinders that operate like the drum of a washing machine to enrich the uranium), the enriched fuel must then be turned into reactor fuel rods, a complex process some doubt Tehran could master. Some experts say that if they can, Iran could have a nuclear bomb in three to five years. On June 27, CIA Director Leon Panetta said it would only take about two years.

Will Israel strike?

The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran has haunted Israelis for decades, and talk of an Israeli attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities has been circulating for several years.

Israel put a stop to Iraq's nuclear ambitions when it bombed the Osirak reactor near Baghdad in 1981, completely destroying it in less than two minutes. A clandestine attack on a North Korean--backed nuclear site in Syria several years ago is also credited to an Israeli military campaign and has raised the question of similar tactics being deployed against Iran.

President Obama was asked during an Israeli television interview in early July if he thought Israel was planning a surprise attack against Iran. "I think the relationship between the United States and Israel is sufficiently strong that neither of us try to surprise each other," the president responded.

But reports that Obama has withheld weapons contracts to Israel and redirected a shipment of arms on its way to Tel Aviv in March have drawn criticism among some members of Congress and speculation that the Obama administration is trying to prevent Israel from attacking Iran.

Meyrav Wurmser, director of Hudson Institute's Center for Middle East Policy, said Israel was ready and able to attack Iran but chose not to primarily because it "was afraid of the American reaction." She says Israel is "hoping to draw the U.S. closer to agreeing with an Israeli attack."

An Israeli air attack would likely involve flying over U.S.-controlled airspace and a 600-mile trek, but military analysts say Israel could decide to launch intermediate-range ballistic missiles instead. In May, Israel deployed three Dolphin-class submarines armed with nuclear cruise missiles to the Persian Gulf.

Iran has more than a dozen known nuclear facilities, and any attack on these sites will only push their nuclear endeavors back one to three years, the majority of analysts say, but that could be just enough time to avert a nuclear crisis.

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