(photo credit: AP [file])
In January 2006, a small Falcon jet - favored by top military officers - crashed in northwestern Iran near the Turkish border, killing Brig.-Gen. Ahmad Kazemi, commander of the ground forces of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards and at least 12 other officers.
While Iranian official statements blamed bad weather and dilapidated engines for the crash, there was room for speculation that foul play may have had a hand in Kazemi's death. Kazemi had been responsible for the production and development of Iran's Shihab missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Israel, the rest of the Middle East and Europe.
A year later, Radio Farda and Iranian state television announced the death of Ardeshir Hassanpour, a high-level Iranian nuclear scientist, from exposure to high levels of radiation.
Foreign media outlets immediately accused Israel of murdering him. After all, he was alleged to have been one of Iran's top nuclear scientists and, according to one report, was the founder of the Iranian Center for Nuclear Electromagnetic Studies, and the co-founder of the Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center, home to Iran's uranium conversion facility.
Other mysterious deaths took place, as well. For example, Dr. Yahya Meshad, a key nuclear scientist in Iraq's nuclear program, was killed in a Paris hotel room in June 1980, during a visit to check on enriched uranium that was scheduled to be shipped as the first fuel for Osirak. Over the next several months, at least two more scientists died under mysterious circumstances.
Despite the obvious setbacks these deaths caused the Iraqi nuclear program, it seems they were not enough to stop Saddam Hussein's nuclear development. In 1981, prime minister Menachem Begin approved "Operation Opera," the air force strike which destroyed the Osirak reactor.
ACCORDING TO top Israeli defense officials - as was reported exclusively in The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday - Military Intelligence's newly-updated assessment has Iran mastering centrifuge technology and being able to enrich uranium on a military scale by the end of the year.
The new assessment moves up forecasts on Teheran's nuclear program by almost a full year. According to the new time line, Iran could have a nuclear weapon by the middle of next year.
Iran currently has 6,000 centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility, where there is room in the underground bunker facility for some 54,000. If everything goes as planned, Iran will have enough enriched uranium - dozens of kilograms - for a bomb by mid-2009.
This new time line leaves Israeli government and military leaders in a major predicament concerning the "point of no return" for a potential military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Until the publication of the US National Intelligence Estimate late last year, the widespread belief among Israel's leaders was that the Bush administration would stop Iran's nuclear program. Predictions even noted this summer as a potential time period for such a strike. But following the NIE - which claimed Iran had suspended its military program in 2003 - the chance of a US strike, from Israel's perspective, went down the drain.
While Israeli long-range military capabilities pale in comparison to those of the US, the popular belief in the defense establishment is that air strikes could cause enough damage to Iranian nuclear facilities to set its program back by a number of years.
The question is when would a good time for a strike be. The answer may be found in Israel's previous attacks on enemy reactors - in 1981 in Iraq and last September in Syria.
The bombing of Osirak took place just months before the 70-megawatt uranium-powered reactor was to be completed and stocked with nuclear fuel.
Regarding Syria, CIA Director Michael Hayden said in late April that the alleged nuclear reactor Israel attacked along the Euphrates River was just a few weeks away from becoming operational. The reactor, he said, would have produced enough plutonium for one or two bombs within a year.
These two strikes seem to have created a pattern, according to which Israel bombs enemy nuclear facilities just before they become operational. The same may apply to Iran, which according to the newly-updated MI time line will master centrifuge technology by the end of this year. Once they master the technology, all that is needed is for Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, head of Iran's nuclear program, to get approval from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to begin enriching uranium on a military scale.
For this reason, Israel is keeping open a quiet dialogue with the US military and intelligence agencies regarding developments in Iran. While Israel does not believe America will put out a new NIE before President George W. Bush leaves office, senior officials said this week that the dialogue has succeeded in convincing some top officials that the previous report was mistaken.
Assessments in the IDF are that while sanctions are important, they alone will not stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear capability. Their effectiveness is also put into doubt in light of the rising oil prices to more than $100 a barrel in comparison to just $25 several years ago.
In the midst of all of this, Bush will arrive here next week. Hopes in the defense establishment are that he will come bearing gifts, including possibly the stealth F-22 Raptor, advanced models of the Joint Direct Attack Munition smart bombs and an announcement that the US is linking Israel to its worldwide radar system that provides early warning of ballistic missile fire.
The new systems play a double role. They significantly improve Israeli military capabilities but no less important is their role in enhancing Israel's level of deterrence in face of its enemies, including Iran.