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Thursday, August 14, 2008

U.S. nixed Israel's request for bunker-busters

TEL AVIV — The United States rejected a recent Israeli request for advanced detection systems as well as bunker-busters capable of locating and destroying Iranian nuclear weapons sites.

Israeli officials said the administration was persuaded by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that such systems could be used to facilitate an Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear weapons facilities.

"It [United States] does not see an action against Iran as the right thing to do at the moment," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.

Barak, who met senior administration officials in late July, appeared to confirm a report in the Israeli daily Haaretz on Aug. 13 that Washington refused Israel's request for the advanced U.S. systems. Haaretz also reported that the administration rejected an Israeli request to use Iraqi air space for an attack on Iran.

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"It would not be right to talk about these things," Barak said.

Other officials said the administration's decision in July 2008 was the latest in a series of rejections of Israeli requests for advanced U.S. systems required for long-range strikes. They said Washington has denied Israeli requests for advanced reconnaissance systems, airborne radars, deep-penetration ordnance and equipment to detect underground activity.

"The administration policy is not to sell us anything that would augment our offensive capability," an official said. "It has been this way for quite a few years, and the increased threats against Israel has not changed this."

A U.S. source close to the Bush administration confirmed its rejection of the latest Israeli request. The source said Israel sought U.S. systems that could detect and destroy Iranian nuclear bunkers and tunnels.

"The Americans assert that their systems could detect activity deep underground," the source said. "But this is not correct, and they don't want Israel to find this out."

The U.S. source said the administration also rejected an Israeli request for bunker-busting bombs that could destroy Iran's underground nuclear weapons facilities. The Israeli request was said to have included an assurance that the bombs would be used only against Iran.

"The Israelis got some earlier bunker-buster models, but not the latest weapons systems," the source said.

Instead, the administration has offered to examine Israel's requests for defensive systems. They included an X-band radar for long-range early-warning of enemy missile launches.

Officials said the U.S. administration, maintaining that Teheran was at least two years away from nuclear weapons capability, relayed a warning to Israel against a unilateral attack on Iran. The American message, they said, asserted that such an attack would destabilize the region and harm U.S. interests.

The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been divided over whether to attack Iran's nuclear weapons program. The Foreign Ministry has warned that such an attack could fail and instead result in massive international condemnation of Israel and blanket approval for Teheran's nuclear efforts.

The Defense Ministry and military have assessed that the most favorable period for an Israeli strike was late 2008 or early 2009 before Bush leaves office. The Israeli intelligence community has determined that Bush, and particularly Vice President Richard Cheney, would support such an Israeli attack despite the U.S. embrace of a diplomatic option toward Teheran.

"Bush can't act against the advice of his secretary of defense and secretary of state," an official said. "But once Israel attacks, he will stand by Israel's side as he did during the Lebanon war [in 2006]."

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