By Carolynne Wheeler in Tel Aviv and Tim Shipman in Washington
A former head of Mossad has warned that Israel has 12 months in which to destroy Iran's nuclear programme or risk coming under nuclear attack itself. He also hinted that Israel might have to act sooner if Barack Obama wins the US presidential election.
Shabtai Shavit, an influential adviser to the Israeli parliament's defence and foreign affairs committee, told The Sunday Telegraph that time was running out to prevent Iran's leaders getting the bomb.
Mr Shavit, who retired from the Israeli intelligence agency in 1996, warned that he had no doubt Iran intended to use a nuclear weapon once it had the capability, and that Israel must conduct itself accordingly.
"The time that is left to be ready is getting shorter all the time," he said in an interview.
Mr Shavit, 69, who was deputy director of Mossad when Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq in 1981, added: "As an intelligence officer working with the worst-case scenario, I can tell you we should be prepared. We should do whatever necessary on the defensive side, on the offensive side, on the public opinion side for the West, in case sanctions don't work. What's left is a military action."
The "worst-case scenario, he said, is that Iran may have a nuclear weapon within "somewhere around a year".
As speculation grew that Israel was contemplating its own air strikes, Iran's military said it might hit the Jewish state with missiles and stop Gulf oil exports if it came under attack. Israel "is completely within the range of the Islamic republic's missiles," said Mohammed Ali Jafari, head of the feared Revolutionary Guard. "Our missile power and capability are such that the Zionist regime cannot confront it."
More than 40 per cent of all globally traded oil passes through the 35-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz, putting tankers entering or leaving the Gulf at risk from Iranian mines, rockets and artillery, and Mr Jafari's comments were the clearest signal yet that Iran intends to use this leverage in the nuclear dispute.
Despite offering incentives, the West has failed to persuade Iran to stop enriching uranium. Israeli officials believe the diplomatic process is useless and have been pressing President Bush to launch air strikes before he leaves office on January 20 next year.
They apparently fear that the chances of winning American approval for an air attack will be drastically reduced if the Democratic nominee wins the election. Mr Obama advocates talks with the regime in Tehran rather than military action.
That view was echoed by Mr Shavit, who said: "If [Republican candidate John] McCain gets elected, he could really easily make a decision to go for it. If it's Obama: no. My prediction is that he won't go for it, at least not in his first term in the White House."
He warned that while it would be preferable to have American support and participation in a strike on Iran, Israel will not be afraid to go it alone.
"When it comes to decisions that have to do with our national security and our own survival, at best we may update the Americans that we are intending or planning or going to do something. It's not a precondition, [getting] an American agreement," he said.