INTERNATIONAL. An Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear sites may become likelier in 2012 if Israel calculates it has more room to act alone in a U.S. presidential election year, a former U.S. official and nuclear diplomacy expert said.
Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran watcher at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, told Reuters the latest report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog made him more worried that Iran was closer to mastering how to use nuclear power as a weapon.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for civilian energy only. But Fitzpatrick, who was a State Department official responsible for nuclear non-proliferation, said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report was damning.
It found that Iran appeared to have worked on designing a nuclear weapon and may be continuing research relevant to that end.
Fitzpatrick said an IAEA governing board meeting on Thursday and Friday in Vienna should demonstrate serious international concern over the findings. But he doubted whether Russia or China would go along with any resolution finding Iran to be in non-compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
And he said he feared that if countries like Israel that felt most threatened by Iran lost faith in the international community to act firmly, they could act alone.
"When you consider that next year being the U.S. presidential election year, and the dynamics of politics in the United States, this could increase Israel's inclination to take matters into its own hands," Fitzpatrick said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might not necessarily ask President Barack Obama for permission to mount a strike, Fitzpatrick said, if Israel believed Iran could acquire a nuclear weapon or place one in a site out of reach.
Netanyahu said on Sunday Iran was closer to getting an atomic bomb than had been thought.
"The most likely possibility is that Mr Netanyahu calls up Obama and says: 'I'm not asking for a green light, I'm just telling you that we've just launched the planes, don't shoot them down'," Fitzpatrick said.
"And in a U.S. presidential election year, I think it's unlikely that Obama would shoot them down." Israel enjoys strong support in the United States among politicians and the public.
An Israeli attack on Iran would raise the specter of a wider conflict in the Middle East, at a time when the Jewish state has become more isolated due to changes wrought by the Arab Spring.
Fitzpatrick said he did not think Israel was at that point yet but he saw the danger rising.
He said if Iran took the political decision it could produce a bomb within a year, given its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU).
But he doubted whether Iran would race to produce a single bomb, and it would take a couple of years to produce the handful needed to constitute a "real nuclear deterrent".
Since last year, Iran has tested long range missiles, increased its LEU stockpile, and installed more advanced centrifuges for further enrichment, putting some deep inside a fortified mountain facility at Fordow.
Fitzpatrick said the onus was on governments to implement U.N. mandated sanctions against Iran to exert maximum pressure.
"There is still evidence that Iran is receiving nuclear and missile-related material from front companies in China and elsewhere," he said. "There's evidence that some of the Iranian front companies that had been operating out of Dubai have shifted base -- some of them moving here to Istanbul."
Fitzpatrick said it was clear that some countries were using every means at their disposal to retard Iran's nuclear program, short of military action.
"I don't have any direct evidence of sabotage efforts or so-called decapitation, but clearly Iranian scientists involved in the nuclear program and in the ballistic missile program are in danger," Fitzpatrick said. "Some have been persuaded to defect, others have been assassinated."
An explosion at a military base near Tehran last Saturday killed Brigadier Hassan Moqaddam and 16 other members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards. Moqaddam was regarded as the architect of Iran's missile defenses. Tehran has said the explosion was an accident.