AS ISRAEL pursues peace talks with Syria, speculation is growing that the Jewish state will seriously consider unilateral military action against Iran within the next year.
Israeli intelligence is now estimating that Iran will master centrifuge technology and be able to begin enriching uranium by the end of this year, 12 months ahead of schedule.
As a result, Israeli military officials believe the Islamic republic could have a nuclear weapon by the middle of 2009.
"Within a year, the Israeli government will have to decide between two options: either not do anything and reconcile itself to the fact that Iran is now nuclear, or take unilateral military action," Giora Eiland, Israel's former national security adviser, told Scotland on Sunday.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Israel is also worried that Tehran is developing a cruise missile that can evade interception by the Arrow, Israel's anti-ballistic missile defences.
Iran is suspected of using smuggled Ukrainian X-55 cruise missiles as a model for its own project. A cruise missile, which flies low to dodge radar and interception, could be used to carry a nuclear warhead.
With US President George Bush nearing the end of his term, the likelihood of US military action appears to be fading. The strong chance of Democrat Barack Obama winning the presidential race means Israel will have to consider going it alone. "It's certainly not an option to be taken lightly, but at the end of the day, we may decide it is the only option we have," an Israeli official told the Scotland on Sunday.
The White House last week denied Israeli media reports that President Bush intends to attack Iran. It said that while the military option remained open, the administration preferred to resolve concerns about Iran's push for a nuclear weapon "through peaceful diplomatic means".
Meanwhile, Eiland dismissed the notion that, with Israel now talking to Syria, it was paving the path for military action against Iran. "These are two entirely separate issues that are not at all connected. Syria wants the Golan Heights back and Israel, in return, wants a sort of a diplomatic relationship with its neighbour."
The onus is now on Israeli intelligence to follow up on its reports that the Iranians are ahead of schedule.
"If in the end, a decision is taken to pursue unilateral military action, I think the Israeli public would be willing to accept the repercussions," said Dr Shmuel Bar from the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Israel's Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre. "The most worrying thing in the last six months is what was found in Syria, which means nuclear proliferation, thanks to North Korean help, is happening at much greater levels than people realised."
Bar also pointed to a paper to be published next month by the Washington Institute for Near East Strategy. Its authors, Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt, argue that it should not be assumed an attack on Iran would result in a doomsday-type scenario.
In an interview with Haaretz last week, Clawson said the outcome would depend on several factors: whether nuclear or conventional weapons would be used; if an attack came from the US or Israel; and if nuclear sites only would be targeted. "If the attack completely destroys Iran's nuclear programme that is one thing, but if it does not, that is a different story. Then Iran will be able to continue to develop its nuclear programme, and the world will no longer care about that." When asked about possible Iranian responses to an Israeli attack, Clawson threw doubt on the accuracy of Iran's Shihab missiles, describing them as unreliable and inaccurate. He also questioned the conventional wisdom that in the wake of an Israeli attack, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement would also respond.
"There is no guarantee that Hezbollah will react automatically. Hezbollah are very aware of Israel's strength, and of the harsh reaction that may result if they attack."