JERUSALEM – An Israeli official said Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to persuade his cabinet to authorize a military strike against Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program – a discussion that comes as Israel successfully tests a missile believed capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Iran.
It remained unclear whether Israel was genuinely poised to strike or if it was saber-rattling to prod the international community into taking a tougher line on Iran. Israeli leaders have long hinted at a military option, but they always seemed mindful of the practical difficulties, the likelihood of a furious counterstrike and the risk of regional mayhem.
The developments unfolded as the International Atomic Energy Agency is due to focus on the Iranian program at a meeting later this month. The West wants to set a deadline for Iran to start cooperating with an agency probe of suspicions that Tehran is secretly experimenting with components of a weapons program.
Israeli leaders have said they favor a diplomatic solution, but recent days have seen a spate of Israeli media reports on a possible strike, accompanied by veiled threats from top politicians.
In a speech to parliament this week, Netanyahu said a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a "dire threat" to the world and "a grave, direct threat to us, too."
His hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was dismissive of the reports but added: "We are keeping all options on the table."
The government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing sensitive internal deliberations, told The Associated Press that the option is now being debated at the highest levels.
The official confirmed a report Wednesday in the Haaretz daily that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak both favor an attack, but do not yet have the support of a majority of cabinet ministers. The official also said Israel's top security chiefs, including the heads of the military and Mossad spy agency, oppose military action.
It is generally understood that such a momentous decision would require a cabinet decision. Israel's 1981 destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor was preceded by a cabinet vote.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev refused to comment on the issue but did say there is a "decision-making process which has stood the test of time. … There have been precedents, and the process works."
With most of its population concentrated in a narrow corridor of land along the Mediterranean, Israel's homefront could be vulnerable to a counterattack.
Iran's military chief, General Hasan Firouzabadi, said his country takes Israeli threats seriously and vowed fierce retaliation.
"We are fully prepared to use our proper equipment to punish any mistake so that it will cause a shock," he said in comments posted on the website of the Guard, Iran's most powerful military force.
Reflecting the mood in Israel, military expert Reuven Pedatzur wrote in Haaretz that "if anyone can save Israel from catastrophe, it is the Israeli air force commander," who might simply tell Netanyahu that an attack on Iran "cannot achieve its goals."
Several months ago, the newly retired head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, caused a stir by warning publicly against attacking Iran, saying a strike would be "stupid" and would risk unleashing a region-wide war.
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest threat, citing Tehran's nuclear program, its president's repeated calls for destroying the Jewish state, and Iran's support for the Hamas and Hizbullah militant groups. For years, Israeli leaders have implored the world community to impose tough economic sanctions to pressure the Iranians to dismantle their nuclear installations.
The key element now is time. Israeli estimates of when Iran might be able to produce a nuclear weapon have been fluid, with Dagan giving a 2015 date when he left office. But some reports have suggested officials consider the coming months critical.
The successful test Wednesday of an advanced long-range Israeli missile, along with word of a recent air force exercise, seemed to fit into that scenario.
Barak hailed the launch as "an impressive technological achievement and an important step in Israel's rocket and space progress."
An Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity under government policy, said the military tested a "rocket propulsion system" in a launch from the Palmachim base near Tel Aviv.
Further information about the test was censored by the military. Foreign reports, however, said the military test-fired a long-range Jericho missile – capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and striking Iran.
Also Wednesday, military officials confirmed that the air force conducted a drill last week with Italian warplanes in Sardinia. Israeli warplanes were joined by supply and logistics aircraft.
There were no details on the purpose of the drill. Israeli TV stations ran an interview with one of the pilots who participated, identified only as Lieutenant Colonel Yiftah, who said it allowed the air force to simulate longer-distance missions.
"The advantage here," he said, "is that we can fly in a very large area, much larger than we can in Israel." He said there were "complicated flights with many planes."
A military strike would hardly be unprecedented. Besides the 1981 strike, Israeli warplanes destroyed a site in Syria in 2007 that the UN nuclear watchdog deemed a secretly built nuclear reactor.
But attacking Iran would be a much more difficult task. It is a more distant target, and Israeli warplanes would probably have to go over hostile airspace in Syria, Iraq or Saudi Arabia to reach it. Turkey could be an alternative – but its relations with Israel are fraught.
Iran's nuclear facilities also are believed to be spread out across many sites, buried deep underground.
The Iranian military is far more powerful than those of Syria or Iraq, equipped with sophisticated anti-aircraft defense systems as well as powerful medium-range missiles capable of striking anywhere in Israel.
An Israeli attack would also likely spark retaliation from local Iranian proxies, the Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip to Israel's south and Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon along Israel's northern border. And it would reorder priorities in a region now consumed by the Arab Spring and the Palestinian issue.
Some have speculated that the United States – or even Great Britain – might be better poised to carry out a strike.
Iran denies it aims to produce a bomb, saying its nuclear program is meant only for energy. It has blamed Israel for disruptions in its nuclear program, including the mysterious deaths of Iranian nuclear scientists and a computer virus that wiped out some of Iran's nuclear centrifuges, a key component in nuclear fuel production.
Western powers, like Israel, do not believe Tehran and already have imposed four rounds of sanctions on the Iranian government in an effort to make it put its program, which can make both nuclear fuel or fissile warhead material, under international supervision.
Israel would like to see the United States and other powers "pressure Iran more seriously … first with more sanctions, and if they don't work, to go to war with Iran," said Eldad Pardo, an Iran expert at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.