Barack Obama in Washington with Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. Source: AFP

THE US Defence Secretary believes Israel is poised to attack Iran in the first half of this year to stop Tehran’s nuclear program, according to undisputed reports yesterday.

The prospect of war in the Middle East emerged after Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that Defence Secretary Leon Panetta saw “a strong likelihood” that Israel would strike Iran as early as April. Ignatius appears to have written the report after a background briefing in Brussels with Mr Panetta.

Mr Panetta was asked yesterday to confirm whether this was his view, and he said he was not disputing it, but then added: “What I think and what I view, I consider that to be an area that belongs to me and nobody else.”

The growing likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was echoed by a range of Israeli officials, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

“If sanctions don’t achieve the desired goal of stopping (Iran’s) military nuclear program there will be a need to consider taking action,” Mr Barak said. “A nuclear Iran will be more complicated to deal with, more dangerous and more costly in blood than if it were stopped today.”

Israel’s vice-premier, Moshe Ya’alon, rejected suggestions that because many of Iran’s facilities were underground they were not able to be hit. “From my military experience, human beings will know how to penetrate any installation protected by other human beings,” he said. “Ultimately, all the facilities can be hit.”

Mr Ya’alon was in the US last week for discussions on Iran’s nuclear program, as was Tamir Pardo, the head of Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad.

Israel’s greatest concern is that Iran will start to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, which is 90 per cent, but in an underground facility that Israeli bunker-busting missiles will be incapable of reaching. At this point only the US, which has more penetrating bunker-busters, would be able to reach and damage the most deeply buried Iranian facilities.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated his reluctance to leave Israel’s fate dependent solely on US action.

The US intelligence community has stated that Iran is yet to decide whether to build a bomb. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate committee hearing this week that the first sign of such a decision would be Iran’s progress in enriching uranium to the 90 per cent grade. Iranian scientists have successfully enriched uranium to a 20 per cent level. Israel has said it is not prepared to wait for this decision.

Ignatius wrote: “Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June – before Iran enters what Israelis described as a ‘zone of immunity’ to commence building a nuclear bomb.”

Mr Panetta and President Barack Obama had cautioned Israel that the US opposed an attack believing that it would derail an increasingly successful international economic sanctions program, but that the White House had yet to decide how the US would respond if Israel did attack.

He said Israel believed a strike could be “limited and contained” and that Israel would bomb the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz and other targets.

Iran, Ignatius wrote, would retaliate but Israel doubted it would be an overwhelming barrage, with rockets from Hezbollah in Lebanon. One estimate by the Netanyahu government said Israel might have to “absorb” 500 casualties.

Iran has repeatedly insisted its program is for civilian purposes, but enrichment is required to only 3 per cent for such purposes.

A week ago the EU agreed to ban all imports of Iranian oil from July. The EU imports about 20 per cent of Iran’s oil exports.

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg yesterday expressed concern about a possible military option.

“Of course I worry that there will be a military conflict and that certain countries might seek to take matters into their own hands,” he told Britain’s The House magazine.

While in Israel there appears strong support for a military strike, there are also prominent voices of dissent.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan is leading these voices, warning against any such action for fear of its consequences.

Over the past two years US officials have asked Israel not to take any such action while US combat troops remained in Iraq. The US combat mission ended last year.

Meanwhile, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported yesterday that Iran had launched an observation satellite into space.

By JOHN LYONS, MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT, The Australian

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