Fearing attack, Iran boosts air defenses at nuke sites

By David Horovitz January 5, 2005

(With Arieh O’Sullivan)

Concerned that the US or Israel may be planning an air strike against its nuclear facilities, Iran has beefed up its air defenses around various nuclear sites, Israeli security sources have told The Jerusalem Post. Iran is also said to be intermittently pointing its Shihab rockets in the general direction of Israel.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stressed Tuesday that Israel has no intention of leading any air strike on Iran, and believes that the US-led international diplomatic effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions is the only appropriate path at this stage.

Further underlining Teheran’s concerns, an Iranian newspaper reported Wednesday that US warplanes had flown over its nuclear facilities near the borders with Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few days. The US aircraft that entered Iranian air space included F-16 multi-role fighters and F/A-18 attack jets, according to a report in the Aftab newspaper.

The aircraft were said to have flown at high altitude and, according to the Iranian report, appeared to have been sent on reconnaissance missions over Iran’s nuclear sites, particularly in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. The intrusions, it said, were also possibly designed to assess Iran’s air-defense capabilities.

A few weeks ago, the Iranian Army chief, Gen. Muhammad Salimi, said his forces, led by the air force, had been ordered to stand ready to defend the country against any military strike targeting it nuclear sites.

‘The air force has been ordered to protect the nuclear sites, using all its power,’ he was quoted as saying.

And in late December, Iranian Air Force chief Brig. Karim Qavami was quoted as having ordered his forces to open fire and shoot down any unidentified aircraft violating the country’s airspace.

‘Given that the intrusion of enemy aircraft over Iran’s airspace is possible, all fighter jets of the country have been ordered by the army chief to shoot them down in the event of sighting them,’ he was quoted as saying.

The Israeli security sources told the Post that Teheran has begun to step up protection of its nuclear facilities immediately on agreeing to European demands that it suspend a uranium enrichment program last November.

‘They really believe that the United States and maybe Israel will attack them, so they are improving their defenses,’ said one security source.

Despite the announced freeze in the program, the Israeli sources said, Iran’s secret nuclear program continues to hum along; Teheran is determined to enrich uranium to make nuclear bombs.

Ra’anan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, confirmed that Iran is maintaining ‘a secret program, corroborated also by American intelligence, to produce enriched uranium.’ This clandestine ‘fuel-cycle’ effort, he said, is the ‘critical element… the one factor that will determine when the program comes to fruition, when you can build a bomb.’

If the international community, led by the US, maintains its diplomatic focus on the ‘fuel-cycle effort,’ he said, ‘then that could… perhaps delay the necessity to use any other option.

‘At this stage,’ Gissin stressed, ‘we don’t think that the military option is the option that should be used. There are still sufficient measures that can be taken and must be taken before you come to the conclusion that everything’s lost… You still have time,’ he said, though ‘not much.’

And even if all else failed, Gissin added, ‘we are not going to lead’ any resort to military force.

Rather than missile delivery of a nuclear warhead, Gissin said the more immediate ‘nightmare scenario,’ if Iran did obtain ‘nuclear-upgraded material,’ is that it would be ‘able to assemble a dirty bomb, strap it to a couple of suicide bombers… and send them.’

The security sources said that, at the moment, the Iranians do not have the capability to arm their medium-range Shihab-3 rockets with nuclear warheads. ‘We assess that this won’t happen for at least three years or more,’ said one source.

A warhead weighing a ton would reduce the current Shihab-3’s range by between 250-300 kilometers, thus removing Israel from its 1,300-km. range. At present, these rockets are estimated to have a 500-600 kilogram conventional warhead.

Gissin said the Shihabs were ultimately intended to achieve a range of 2,500 km., which would bring Europe into range. Asked whether Shihabs were intermittently focused on Israel, he said, in ‘the general direction, that’s true.’ He noted that, at present, ‘they do have some problems with the guidance system, but no doubt they will solve them.’

The Israeli security source described the present Iranian air defenses as ‘good.’ It is known that Soviet-origin anti-aircraft systems have recently been deployed around the 1,000 megawatt Busher nuclear reactor.

Iran’s air defense systems also features Russian SA-2, SA-5, SA-6 and shoulder-launched SA-7 missiles, according to the Military Balance prepared by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. The Iranians also have aged US-made Hawk missiles and have been seeking to purchase the sophisticated S-300P from Russia.

A report from the Middle East Newsline Web site said Iran has also requested that India sell it a radar system, known as the Super Fledermaus, which is designed to detect low-flying objects, like unmanned aerial vehicles.

The radar system is produced by Bharat Electronics Ltd. (BEL) under license from its American designer Ericsson Radar Electronics. The US is pressuring New Delhi not to make the sale.

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