THE Ministry of Defence is stepping up its contingency plans for a potential military strike against Iran as concerns grow over the Middle Eastern power’s nuclear programme, sources claim.
Reports last night that the UK was prepared to support the United States in any military action against Tehran came as Israel started testing ballistic missiles, raising fears of conflict within the region.
The US is believed to have told the MoD that it may decide to accelerate its plans for targeted missile strikes against key Iranian facilities.
British officials are thought to have told Washington that if it pushes ahead it will receive UK military help for any mission, despite some reservations within the coalition. Planners in the
MoD are understood to be deciding where best to deploy Royal Navy vessels in the event of strikes being carried out against Iran.
The plans involve the use of Royal Navy ships as well as submarines based in the Clyde, equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles over the coming months as part of what would be an air and sea campaign.
However, privately it is understood the Royal Navy has pointed out a capability gap caused by the UK’s lack of an aircraft carrier.
A number of Whitehall and defence officials have said Iran has once again become the main focus of diplomatic concern after the revolution in Libya.
US president Barack Obama is thought to have no desire to start a new military venture as he prepares for America to pull out of Afghanistan before next November’s election.
But officials have warned this could change because of mounting concerns over intelligence gathered by western agencies and an increasingly belligerent posture that appears to have been adopted by the Tehran government.
There is disappointment in Whitehall that the Iranian regime, led by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has proven “surprisingly resilient” in the face of sanctions, and that sophisticated attempts by the West to cripple his nuclear enrichment programme have been less successful than first thought.
The agencies now also believe Iran has restored all the capability it lost in a sophisticated cyber-attack last year carried out by the US and Israel.
Last night a Foreign Office spokesman did not deny the UK was preparing for a military attack and made it clear the option was a live one.
He said: “The British government believes that a dual-track strategy of pressure and engagement is the best approach to address the threat from Iran’s nuclear programme and avoid regional conflict.”
He added: “We want a negotiated settlement, but all options should be kept on the table.” However, attempts led by the UK, Germany and France have so far failed to stop the Iranian nuclear enrichment programme,
Meanwhile Israel yesterday successfully test-fired a ballistic missile believed to be long-range and capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported yesterday that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pressing to gain a majority in the cabinet for a military strike against Iran, which Israel considers its most dangerous threat.
According to the paper, a group of four ministers in the eight-member inner cabinet, including the minister for strategic affairs, Moshe Yaalon, oppose a military strike, favouring western economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran. Army chief of staff Benny Gantz and the heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agencies are also believed to oppose an attack.
Mr Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, declined to comment on the reports, referring The Scotsman instead to remarks the Israeli premier made on Monday, that Iran is continuing its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and “poses a grave and direct threat against us”.
Leading analyst Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies, said the reports of a planned attack may be aimed at “ratcheting up pressure on the international community to tighten sanctions next week” after the International Agency for Atomic Energy issues a new report on Iran.
“It is clear there is discussion and there is also dissent, but whether there is really a decision by Netanyahu for near-term action against Iran, I cannot tell you,” he said.
Another leading Israeli strategic specialist, Emily Landau, stressed that military action would at best delay Iranian nuclear capability, rather than stop it.
“There is no real military option to stop the programme,” she said. “The facilities are dispersed and there are probably facilities we don’t know about.”
Defence ministry officials provided scant details of yesterday’s missile launch on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. An official would say only that Israel tested a “rocket propulsion system” in an exercise planned a long time ago. Some reports said long-range Jericho missile was fired, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and striking Iran.
In Iran, meanwhile, the army chief of staff responded to the reports of Israeli attack plans by threatening that Tehran would punish the US and Israel.
“The US knows that an attack by the Zionist regime against Iran will have grave consequences for America and the Zionist regime itself,” said General Hasan Firouzabadi.
Iran denies it aims to produce a bomb, but Western powers do not believe this and have already imposed four rounds of sanctions in an effort to make it put its programme under international supervision.