IRAN already has 20 per cent enriched uranium; its estimated 10,000 centrifuges can convert this to weapon-grade fuel by the year-end. From then, it may be just another few months before the fissile material is prepared for the payload of the Shahab-3, a missile capable of reaching Israel. The point of no return, the threshold beyond which it would be impossible to stop Iran from acquiring the bomb, is approaching.
Furthermore, Iran is moving its fissile material to the Fardo facility near the city of Qom, in a bunker estimated to be 60m deep and impervious to an Israeli strike. The window of opportunity for an attack may close in the next few months.
OPTIONS ARE RUNNING OUT
FEW Israeli officials believed that international sanctions would halt Iran's nuclear quest.
Still, they hoped that covert activities such as the Stuxnet virus which interfered with computers driving Iran's facilities, or the assassination of nuclear scientists, could postpone the looming showdown.
It did, but not enough.
'A WAR is no picnic,' Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak reminded journalists recently. But Mr Barak added that if his country had to 'act' against Iran, 'we will do it, and the State of Israel will not be destroyed'. In short, a nuclear-armed Iran is seen as an existential threat. An Israeli pre-emptive strike is not unprecedented: Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor was hit in 1981. A suspected nuclear site in Syria was destroyed in 2007.
But Iran's defences are much more powerful, and its nuclear facilities are both more dispersed and farther afield, at a distance of about 1,300km from Israel. Nevertheless, this will not deter the Israelis.
Thousands of its analysts have worked exclusively on Iran for a decade. It has teams of collaborators engaged in more traditional spying.
Israel is also home to a large community of former Iranian Jews who speak Farsi like natives.
WEAPONS AND TACTICS
UNLIKE the US military, which allocates the initial weeks of any campaign to 'suppressing' an opponent's air defences, the Israelis prefer surgical, short attacks. It is therefore certain Israel's commanders have already identified key Iranian targets they wish to destroy, and that they are planning on using massive firepower over, at most, a few days.
The biggest burden falls on the Israeli Air Force (IAF), which will have to throw into battle most of its fighter jets and ensure that these are being refuelled in mid-air to cover the necessary distance. The IAF has been practising for this by flying in large formations over the Mediterranean Sea, and as far afield as Poland.
Most of the IAF's equipment has been tailored accordingly. Israel also has GBU-28 bunker-busting bombs which can burrow 30m into earth, and 6m into concrete, not enough to penetrate the Fardo facility, but sufficient to destroy other targets. The IAF also has a 1,000-strong arsenal of GBU-39 bombs, which weigh 22kg each but have the destructive power of a 900kg explosive device, and can guide themselves to the target. And pressure is mounting on the US to deliver GBU-31 bunker-busting munitions, which may well penetrate even the Fardo facility.
Israel's Dolphin-class submarines can each carry 16 surface-to-surface missiles with a 130km range, enough to hit Iranian targets from Gulf waters. And there are the Jericho III missiles, which were successfully test-fired last year and can hit anywhere inside Iran from silos near Tel Aviv.
The operation will also likely involve the Israeli special forces whose job will be to confuse Iranian defences, or disable smaller but critical nuclear facilities. Its men have been training for this in the mountains of Romania, whose topography resembles that of Iran.
At every stage, surprise will be key. Flying over Iraq is the most direct route for Israeli pilots, and since the US pullout, Iraq is unable to effectively protect its airspace. But the attacks need not necessarily use the shortest overflight route. Iran has already accused Azerbaijan of cooperating with Israel, a claim its government denies. But other surprises may be in store, such as a cyber-attack to paralyse communication networks, or the deployment of new weapons.
A SUCCESSFUL strike will set back Iran's nuclear programme for years. But Israel does not have the capability to engage in a protracted, long-term conflict should Iran retaliate.
Taking blows from Iranian surrogates like Hamas is one thing, but if Iran starts firing missiles directly into Israeli cities, an awful choice looms.
Although active, Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system remains incomplete, and is effective only against short-range projectiles. So, Israel will have to decide if it can accept potentially massive civilian casualties or warn Iran that it faces nuclear retaliation. That is largely why its political elite remains divided about a strike on Iran and the hope is to persuade the US to lead the campaign