JERUSALEM — Israel's defense minister warned on Tuesday of a possible Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear program and rejected suggestions the Jewish state would be devastated by an Iranian counterattack.
Ehud Barak spoke a day before the United Nations' nuclear agency was expected to release a critical report on the Iranian program. The report is expected to implicate Iran in bomb building and erase doubts about the nature of the program, which Iran says is designed to produce energy, not weapons.
Barak told Israel Radio he didn't expect the International Atomic Energy Agency report to persuade Russia and China to impose what he called "lethal" sanctions on Iran to pressure Tehran to dismantle its nuclear installations.
"As long as no such sanctions have been imposed and proven effective, we continue to recommend to our friends in the world and to ourselves, not to take any option off the table," he said. He stressed that no decision to attack has been made.
The "all options on the table" phrase is often used by Israeli politicians to mean a military assault.
The U.N. has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Tehran, but none has succeeded in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions. On Tuesday, Barak suggested adding a naval blockade that would cut off Iran's economic lifeline, oil.
Israel views Iran as its greatest threat because of its nuclear program, its missiles, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated references to the destruction of the Jewish state and Iran's support for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups.
Israeli leaders have sent out signals recently that military action is on the agenda. An official told The Associated Press last week that the Israeli Cabinet has discussed the matter, with Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in favor of taking action. An Israeli missile test last week, combined with an announcement of a special air force drill in Italy, further raised speculation.
With the IAEA report approaching, it is unclear whether the leaks are true threats or merely a pressure tactic to push the international community to take decisive action – particularly given the risk that an Israeli attack on Iran would carry.
With most of its population concentrated in a narrow corridor of land along the Mediterranean, Israel's home front could be vulnerable to a counterattack if Israel were to strike.
An Israeli attack would also likely spark retaliation from Iran and local Iranian proxies, the Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip to Israel's south and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon along Israel's northern border. Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah all possess formidable rocket and missile arsenals.
Barak lashed out against the recent reports suggesting that he and Netanyahu were intent on attacking Iran, over the objection of Israeli defense chiefs. He also accused critics of fear mongering by warning of mass Israeli casualties in the case of an Iranian missile strike.
"This outlandish depiction (by the media) of two people, the prime minister and the defense minister, sitting in a closed room and leading the entire country into an adventurist operation is baseless and divorced from reality," he said.
A larger forum of Cabinet ministers would have to make that decision – if it is made at all, he said. "We haven't decided yet to embark on any operation," he said. "We don't want war."
But if Israel is dragged into one, he said, "I tell you there won't be 100,000 casualties, and not 10,000 casualties and not 1,000 casualties," he said. "And Israel won't be destroyed."
In 1981, Israel stunned the world with an airstrike on an unfinished nuclear reactor in Iraq that destroyed Saddam Hussein's nuclear program. Israeli warplanes also destroyed a site in Syria in 2007 that the U.N. nuclear watchdog deemed to be a secretly built nuclear reactor, though Israel never acknowledged responsibility for the attack.
Iran's program would be significantly more difficult to cripple because its facilities are scattered, and some are mobile and some built underground.