JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Wednesday successfully test-fired a missile said capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and striking Iran, fanning the public debate over reports the country's top leaders are agitating for a military attack on Tehran's atomic facilities.
While Israeli leaders have long warned that a military strike was an option, an intense round of public discourse on the subject erupted over the weekend by a report in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak favor an attack.
That was followed by a report in the Haaretz daily Wednesday that Netanyahu is now lobbying senior members of his Cabinet for an attack, despite the complexity of the operation and the high likelihood it would draw a deadly retaliation from Iran.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu expressed new concerns about Iran's nuclear program, warning in a speech to parliament that the Iranian regime was continuing its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Cabinet ministers have recently held a series of discussions on possible pre-emptive military action against Iran, though no decisions are known to have been made.
Wednesday's missile launch, from a base on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, added to the speculation that Israeli action could be imminent. An Israeli defense official said the military tested a "rocket propulsion system" in an exercise planned long ago. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of security restrictions, and declined to give additional details.
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.
Israeli media reported that onlookers who saw the missile overhead panicked, fearing Israel was under attack.
Barak hailed the missile test as a breakthrough.
"This is an impressive technological achievement and an important step in Israel's rocket and space progress," he said. "The successful experiment proves again that the engineers, technicians and staff of the Israeli defense industries are of the highest level."
Israel considers Iran its most dangerous threat, citing Tehran's nuclear program, its ballistic missile development, repeated references by the Iranian leader to Israel's destruction and Iran's support for anti-Israel militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
The Iranian military chief, Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, said Tehran would punish the Jewish state should it launch an attack on Iran.
"We take the threats seriously no matter how remote or unlikely," Firouzabadi in comments posted Wednesday on the website of the Guard, Iran's most powerful military force.
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 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.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is due to focus on the Iranian program at a meeting later this month. The West is pushing for a resolution that could set a deadline for Iran to start cooperating with an agency probe of suspicions Tehran is secretly experimenting with components of a weapons program.
Israel, which destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in a 1986 airstrike, has never explicitly said it would be willing to attack Iran, an operation that would much tougher because Iranian nuclear facilities are scattered, mobile and in some cases, underground.
While Netanyahu repeatedly has said sanctions and diplomacy are the preferred route, he has also contended that Iran won't curb its nuclear ambitions unless threatened with military action.
Israeli leaders traditionally have kept quiet about operational plans regarding Iran, so it stunned many Israelis several months ago when the newly retired head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, issued the first of several blunt warnings against attacking Iran, saying a strike would be "stupid" and would risk unleashing a region-wide war.
Dagan took harsh criticism from those who said he should not be discussing the issue at all. Others wondered whether the public debate taking place might be an attempt to put pressure on the rest of the world to take action.
"What Israel would wish to see is that the United States and rest of powers would 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.