Government in secret talks about strike against Iran
The Government is to hold secret talks with defence chiefs tomorrow to discuss possible military strikes against Iran.
A high-level meeting will take place in the Ministry of Defence at which senior defence chiefs and government officials will consider the consequences of an attack on Iran.
It is believed that an American-led attack, designed to destroy Iran's ability to develop a nuclear bomb, is "inevitable" if Teheran's leaders fail to comply with United Nations demands to freeze their uranium enrichment programme.Tomorrow's meeting will be attended by Gen Sir Michael Walker, the chief of the defence staff, Lt Gen Andrew Ridgway, the chief of defence intelligence and Maj Gen Bill Rollo, the assistant chief of the general staff, together with officials from the Foreign Office and Downing Street.
The International Atomic Energy Authority, the nuclear watchdog, believes that much of Iran's programme is now devoted to uranium enrichment and plutonium separation, technologies that could provide material for nuclear bombs to be developed in the next three years.
The United States government is hopeful that the military operation will be a multinational mission, but defence chiefs believe that the Bush administration is prepared to launch the attack on its own or with the assistance of Israel, if there is little international support. British military chiefs believe an attack would be limited to a series of air strikes against nuclear plants - a land assault is not being considered at the moment.
But confirmation that Britain has started contingency planning will undermine the claim last month by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, that a military attack against Iran was "inconceivable".
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, insisted, during a visit to Blackburn yesterday, that all negotiating options - including the use of force - remained open in an attempt to resolve the crisis.Tactical Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from US navy ships and submarines in the Gulf would, it is believed, target Iran's air defence systems at the nuclear installations.
That would enable attacks by B2 stealth bombers equipped with eight 4,500lb enhanced BLU-28 satellite-guided bunker-busting bombs, flying from Diego Garcia, the isolated US Navy base in the Indian Ocean, RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire and Whiteman USAF base in Missouri.
It is understood that any direct British involvement in an attack would be limited but may extend to the use of the RAF's highly secret airborne early warning aircraft.
At the centre of the crisis is Washington's fear that an Iranian nuclear weapon could be used against Israel or US forces in the region, such as the American air base at Incirlik in Turkey.
The UN also believes that the production of a bomb could also lead to further destabilisation in the Middle East, which would result in Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia all developing nuclear weapons programmes.A senior Foreign Office source said: "Monday's meeting will set out to address the consequences for Britain in the event of an attack against Iran. The CDS [chiefs of defence staff] will want to know what the impact will be on British interests in Iraq and Afghanistan which both border Iran. The CDS will then brief the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on their conclusions in the next few days.
"If Iran makes another strategic mistake, such as ignoring demands by the UN or future resolutions, then the thinking among the chiefs is that military action could be taken to bring an end to the crisis. The belief in some areas of Whitehall is that an attack is now all but inevitable.
There will be no invasion of Iran but the nuclear sites will be destroyed. This is not something that will happen imminently, maybe this year, maybe next year. Jack Straw is making exactly the same noises that the Government did in March 2003 when it spoke about the likelihood of a war in Iraq.
"Then the Government said the war was neither inevitable or imminent and then attacked."
The source said that the Israeli attack against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 proved that a limited operation was the best military option.
The Israeli air force launched raids against the plant, which intelligence suggested was being used to develop a nuclear bomb for use against Israel.
Military chiefs also plan tomorrow to discuss fears that an attack within Iran will "unhinge" southern Iraq - where British troops are based - an area mainly populated by Shia Muslims who have strong political and religious links to Iran.
They are concerned that this could delay any withdrawal of troops this year or next. There could also be consequences for British and US troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran.
The MoD meeting will address the economic issues that could arise if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president - who became the subject of international condemnation last year when he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" - cuts off oil supplies to the West in reprisal.There are thought to be at least eight known sites within Iran involved in the production of nuclear materials, although it is generally accepted that there are many more secret installations.
Iran has successfully tested a Fajr-3 missile that can reach Israel, avoiding radar and hitting several targets using multiple warheads, its military has confirmed.
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