TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s defense minister said his country is upgrading contingency plans to strike Iranian targets if Tehran shows signs of nuclear escalation, the latest sign of rising tensions between the two archenemies.
Benny Gantz told the American cable network Fox News that Israel is still working on its plans, but that “we have them in our hands of course.”
His comments came as President Joe Biden considers re-joining a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program, with some changes to toughen curbs on Tehran’s activities.
Former President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the atomic accord in 2018 and imposed a so-called campaign of maximum pressure, including sanctions, on Tehran.
Since then, Iran has stepped up uranium enrichment. The U.N. nuclear watchdog — the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, which monitors Iran's nuclear program — said earlier this week that Iran nearly tripled its stockpile of enriched uranium since November in violation of its deal with world powers.
Iran and the Biden administration are deadlocked over how to revive the deal, with Tehran demanding an immediate lifting of sanctions and the U.S. calling on Iran to first return to full compliance with the restrictions of the nuclear agreement.
Israel has vehemently opposed the nuclear deal. At the same time, tensions have been rising between arch foes Israel and Iran. Last week, an Israeli-owned cargo ship, the Helios Ray, was damaged by a mysterious explosion in the strategically important Gulf of Oman. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of attacking the vessel. Iran denied the charge.
In the interview with Fox News on Thursday, Gantz was asked about the ongoing uranium enrichment and whether Israel was completing preparations to strike Iranian targets if needed.
"We have them (plans) in our hands of course but we will continue constantly improving them,” Gantz said. “The Iranian nuclear escalation must be stalled. If the world stops them before, it's very much good. But if not, we must stand independently and we must defend ourselves by ourselves.”
Iran denies it is pursuing nuclear weapons, and says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Unlike Iran, Israel’s atomic program, which is widely believed to include an undeclared nuclear bomb program, is not under the watch of the IAEA.
In the Fox interview, Gantz also showed a map of Lebanon that he said includes ground forces, missiles and launching sites set up by the militant Hezbollah group, a proxy for Iran.
“This is a target map. Each one of them has been checked legally, operationally, intelligence-wise and we are ready to fight,” Gantz said.
Previously, Israel's military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, warned that in future conflicts, Israel would use heavy force in residential areas where Hebollah rockets are stored and launched. He has said Israeli troops would warn civilians to evacuate their homes before launching such strikes.