Israel has drawn up contingency plans for a combined air and ground attack on targets in Iran if diplomacy fails to halt the Iranian nuclear program, according to a report in the Sunday London Times.

The inner cabinet of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, gave “initial authorization” for an attack at a private meeting last month on his ranch in the Negev desert, according to the report.

Israeli forces reportedly have used a mock-up of Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant in the desert for practice runs. Their tactics include raids by Israel’s elite Shaldag commando unit and airstrikes by F-15 jets from 69 Squadron, using bunker-busting bombs recently purchased from the U.S. to penetrate underground facilities.

The plans, said the Times, have been discussed with U.S. officials who are said to have indicated provisionally that they would not stand in Israel’s way if all international diplomatic efforts to halt Iranian nuclear projects failed.

Tehran claims that its program is designed for peaceful purposes, but Israeli and American intelligence officials ? who have met to share information in recent weeks ? are convinced that it is intended to produce nuclear weapons.

Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, said he believed that diplomacy was the only way to deal with the issue. But he warned: “The idea that this tyranny of Iran will hold a nuclear bomb is a nightmare, not only for us but for the whole world.”

Vice President Dick Cheney said Friday that Iran would face “stronger action” if it failed to respond. But yesterday Iran rejected the initiative, which provides for entry to the World Trade Organization and a supply of spare parts for airliners if it co-operates.

“No pressure, bribe or threat can make Iran give up its legitimate right to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes,” said an Iranian spokesman.

U.S. officials warned last week that a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israeli or American forces had not been ruled out should the issue become deadlocked at the United Nations.

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