x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Israel test-fire of missile sparks fears it will strike Iran

Israel's test-firing of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead stirred some panic among Israeli onlookers about a possible attack against the country after the device left behind a fire trail that could be seen for tens of kilometres.

TEL AVIV // Tensions rose between Israel and Iran yesterday after Israel test-fired an advanced missile that could hit Tehran.

The Iranian armed forces chief warned of retaliation against any strike at the country.

Israel's test-firing of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead stirred some panic among Israeli onlookers about a possible attack against the country after the device left behind a fire trail that could be seen for tens of kilometres. The exercise also followed several days of speculation by Israeli media of an approaching attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

While it has long been known Israel was mulling a strike against Iran to hurt Tehran's nuclear ambitions, the speculation was fanned by a front-page report in Israel's largest-circulation newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, at the weekend, which said the Israeli prime minister and defence minister favoured an assault.

Yesterday, an article in Haaretz newspaper added fuel to the speculation by saying that Benjamin Netanyahu, the premier, was lobbying his cabinet in a bid to muster majority support for an attack.

Haaretz, citing an unidentified senior government official, said there was no decision yet on such a strike.

The reports emerged at a sensitive time, ahead of a document due to be released next week by the International Atomic Energy Agency expected to expose details on the military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme, although it was not anticipated to directly accuse Tehran of trying to build such arms.

Yesterday, Israeli army officials played down reports the missile test, from a base on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, was increased training ahead of a strike. They said the trial was a test of a "rocket propulsion system" that had been planned long ago.

The Israeli military censored further details from appearing in domestic reports but some foreign media said the exercise was for a long-range "Jericho" missile.

Israeli media reported yesterday that in 2008, the army successfully tested a two-stage, long-range ballistic missile.

According to the reports, Israel's missiles include several carrying nuclear warheads, the so-called "Shavit" rockets used to launch satellites and the "Arrow" missile interceptor.

General Hasan Firouzabadi, the Iranian military chief, yesterday said Iran would "punish" Israel if it attacked the country, the Associated Press reported. He added: "We take the threats seriously no matter how remote or unlikely."

Israeli officials have hinted at a possible pre-emptive attack.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister, yesterday called Iran "the biggest and most dangerous threat to world order".

Mr Lieberman, said by the Haaretz to be a supporter of a strike against Tehran, also condemned the public debate of a military option and said the international community must take aggressive steps against Iran.

Those include, he said, imposing sanctions on Iran's central bank or on the purchase of oil from Iran, as well as on supplying it with any technical equipment that would advance its oil industry.

In Washington yesterday, the US House foreign affairs committee approved new and tougher penalties against Iran, focusing on companies that do business with Tehran as well as its central bank, the Associated Press reported.

The US and United Nations have imposed several rounds of penalties already over fears about Iran's nuclear programme, which Tehran insisted was purely peaceful.

Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, suggested on Tuesday that Israel might attack Iran despite resistance from the US, Israel's closest ally.

Speaking to parliament, he said: "A situation could be created in the Middle East in which Israel must defend its vital interests in an independent fashion, without necessarily having to rely on other forces, regional or otherwise." Mr Barak also played down the front-page report in Yediot, which drew much attention because it was written by one of the country's most well-connected journalists NAME?, saying that "in 2011 in Israel, two people cannot decide to act by themselves".

Such comments have stirred fiery debate among the Israeli public because the country's security establishment - including the chiefs of the army, the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency and the Mossad spy agency - appears to oppose any strike. The security heads warned a strike was complex and could draw deadly retaliation from Iran.

Mr Netanyahu considers Iran's nuclear ambitions the biggest danger to Israel - a fear inflamed by repeated references by Iran's leaders to Israel's destruction and Iran's backing of groups such as Hamas.