JERUSALEM — Israel does not want to take military action against Iran over its nuclear program, but at some point may have no other option, Israel's defense minister said Thursday.
At this point, Israel does not intend to launch a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities but it retains the option as a "last resort," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio.
"We don't need unnecessary wars. But we definitely might be put to the test," he said. "The non-diplomatic point is a last resort. The fact that all options are on the table is agreed upon by everybody."
Barak said he hoped that sanctions and diplomacy would pressure the Iranian leadership to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program, but said he does not expect that to happen.
Israel, like the West, suspects Iran is developing a nuclear bomb, despite Tehran's insistence that its nuclear program is designed to produce energy.
Israel says a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten the Jewish state's survival, citing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated references to Israel's destruction, Iran's arsenal of ballistic missiles and its support for militant groups that fight Israel.
The U.S. – as well as some security experts in Israel – have loudly opposed the prospect of an Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, because of its potential for touching off retaliation against Israel and a broader, regional conflagration.
But Barak suggested that Israel might not alert world powers before embarking on a strike.
"Israel is a sovereign state and it is the government of Israel, the Israeli army and security forces who are responsible for Israel's security, future and survival," he said.
Mysterious blasts, computer viruses and assassinations have disrupted Iran's nuclear program, and there has been speculation of Israeli involvement.
Barak would not comment on that possibility, but said, "We are not happy to see the Iranians move ahead on this (program), so any delay, be it divine intervention or otherwise, is welcome."
In an interview broadcast Thursday on Israeli TV, former Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan harshly criticized any plans to attack Iran.
Dagan, who recently retired from the spy agency, estimated that an Israeli attack would likely lead to a regional war in which Syria as well as Lebanese and Palestinian militants would get involved.
"I'm concerned about possible mistakes and I prefer to speak out before there is a catastrophe," he said. "I think that engaging, with open eyes, in a regional war is warranted only when we are under attack or when the sword is already cutting against our live flesh. It is not an alternative that should be chosen lightly."
Dagan said he believed the Iranians were not progressing as quickly as is widely believed and there was still plenty of time to stop them from acquiring the bomb.
A recent survey commissioned for the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution found Jewish-Israelis to be split almost evenly on a possible Israeli strike on Iran.
The Dahaf Institute poll found that 43 percent support an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities while 41 percent oppose it. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed also said they would prefer a nuclear-free region over one in which both Israel and Iran possessed nuclear weapons, while 19 percent favored the alternative.
Israel is widely believed to have nuclear capabilities.
The poll surveyed 510 randomly selected Jewish citizens of Israel earlier this month and had margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
In another reflection of Israeli concerns over Iran, the Israeli military said Thursday that it has launched a project to teach Farsi, the dominant language in Iran, to Israeli high school students in hopes of preparing them for careers in military intelligence.
An intelligence official said a select group of 23 honors students had been carefully chosen to participate in the three-year course. An intelligence commander in uniform comes to their school to teach the course, and soldiers from the intelligence unit help them with homework.
"The need for Persian instruction is obvious," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with army protocol.
A few dozen high-school students graduated this year from a similar pilot course in high-level Arabic. Most of them subsequently enlisted into Israel's military intelligence, the official said.