Iran is reinforcing its most sensitive nuclear facility against a possible attack, presenting Israel with a closing window of opportunity for a successful air strike, the Daily Telegraph has learned.
The development of the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant will alter the calculations of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and President Barack Obama when they meet on Monday.
Wary of the risks of war, Mr Obama is expected to argue that sanctions and diplomatic pressure should be given more time to compel Iran’s leaders to reassess their nuclear ambitions.
But Mr Netanyahu must weigh the risk of Israel losing any independent military option when the Fordow plant is finished. This previously secret facility, dug into a mountainside in the Great Salt Desert, is becoming a nerve centre of Iran’s nuclear programme: 696 centrifuges for enriching uranium are now in place beneath protective layers of rock and earth, believed to be some 260ft deep.When complete, Fordow could be invulnerable to the GBU-28, the heaviest “bunker busting” bomb in the arsenal of Israel’s air force. Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, has said that Iran would then be able to concentrate its nuclear capability inside a “zone of immunity”.
But that moment has not yet arrived. An official from a country in the region said that Iran was still working to “harden” Fordow against attack. Despite its mountainside location, the plant is believed to have points of vulnerability, probably including entrances and ventilation shafts.
More work is believed to be underway to minimise any such weaknesses. Until then, the official added that an Israeli attack might still succeed in disabling Fordow, but the option could disappear when the hardening process is complete.
Mr Netanyahu must decide whether to launch a strike before this happens. Otherwise, the power to disable Iran’s nuclear programme by military means would transfer to Mr Obama or his successor. Israel could find itself entirely dependent on the United States to counter what Mr Netanyahu considers to be an existential threat.
“Once the stuff is under the mountain and operating under the mountain, it essentially becomes immune to Israeli military attack,” said Simon Henderson, head of Gulf policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
The heaviest bunker-busting bomb in the US arsenal is the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, weighing 14 tons – three times the weight of the most powerful device deployed by Israel.
Even after work on Fordow is complete, the plant may be vulnerable to a weapon this powerful. But this bomb could never be dropped by the Israeli air force: only the giant B2 and B52 bombers flown by the US Air Force are capable of carrying the GBU-57.
But Mr Netanyahu will be deeply reluctant to be left in a position where Israel must rely on America.
“The window of opportunity isn’t closing for the US. But Israel doesn’t want to find itself beholden to the US for military action,” added Mr Henderson. “Israel doesn’t really think it can rely on the US to do the necessary.”
A diplomat from a country in the region said the pressure on Mr Netanyahu meant there was a “growing risk of an Israeli intervention into Iran”.
However, America fears that US forces would inevitably become embroiled in any war started by Israel. Iran deploys Shahab 3 ballistic missiles capable of striking targets anywhere in the Middle East, including the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and al-Udeid air base in Qatar, where the US air force has its regional hub.
Iran may also seek to disrupt shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, forcing up global oil prices. All this would trigger a US military response.