For the last few years, Israel has made the case that Iran poses a serious threat to its existence and it has not ruled out the possibility of a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Tehran denies it is enriching uranium for weapons and says it will retaliate if attacked. The failure of the major powers to engage Teheran and convince it to stop developing its atomic capabilities is raising anxiety among Israeli leaders who are trying to determine whether to strike or give diplomacy another chance. Israel is drawing on lessons from its past as it deals with what may be a new threat in the not-too-distant future.
Zeev Raz is proud of how he led an Israeli air force squadron of F-16 bombers to destroy a nuclear near Baghdad. He remembers it was a surprisingly easy job with little resistance from the Iraqis. "When we approached the reactor and watched our radar scopes and saw that there was no plane over Baghdad, over the reactor, each of us thought that his radar was not functioning. It was too good to be true," he said.
It was June 1981. It took one mission of less than an hour to destroy Saddam Hussein's nuclear program, which Israel believes Iraq could have used to strike the Jewish State.
Now, with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad speaking of the destruction of Israel and Iran developing its nuclear capabilities, the Jewish State feels its existence is again threatened.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been clear. "The worst danger we face is that Iran would develop nuclear military capabilities," he said.
Israelis tend to agree.
Yaakov Amidror, a retired general and former head of an Israel Defense Forces intelligence division, says Israel cannot afford to ignore Mr. Ahmedinejad. "When it is clear that from his point of ideology, Israel does not have the legitimacy to be a Jewish State in the Middle East, I think that from our experience, we have to take Ahmedinejad very seriously," he said.
Israel has said all options are on the table, including a military option. "We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table. This is our policy. We mean it," said Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister.
Some here believe Israel has may have waited too long, giving Iran time to develop its program. By some Israeli estimates, Tehran will be able to make a crude nuclear bomb within a year.
Former pilot Zeev Raz says Iran poses a much tougher challenge than Iraq did 29 years ago. The Iranian project is dispersed all over the country, which is a huge country, even larger than Iraq. It's much farther, as we all know, and many of the targets are deep under the ground, even under mountains," he said.
Another question is whether an air attack would result in a nuclear-free Iran. "The answer is a clear 'no.' The whole problem of Iran, the challenge that Iran puts on the table for the international arena, is something that Israel cannot deal with. That should be done from within Iran. The Iranians have to make a decision of what kind of government they want," said retired General Yaakov Amidror of the Israeli Defense Forces
Israeli officials hope internal change in Iran will come as the result of new international sanctions. And they are aggressively pushing for them.
"Like our neighbors, we identify with the millions of Iranians who revolt against dictatorship and violence. Like them, we reject a fanatic regime, which contradicts the United Nations charter, a regime which threatens destruction, accompanied by nuclear plants and missiles which activates terror in its country and in other countries. The regime is a danger to the entire world," said Shimon Peres, Israel's President.
Former pilot Zeev Raz thinks Israel should keep pressing for more sanctions. He says there is no guarantee of success like the one Israel had in Iraq in 1981. "The Iraqis were taken by surprise. There was no tactical problem. The planning was good. Execution was perfect. We also were quite lucky. We had much luck. If we go to Iran, we may not have that luck again," he said.
Israelis hope regime change, or the threat of it, will cause Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Until then, all options, starting with an air strike, are on the table.