By Ian Drury and Rose Parker
Iran ‘is ready for war’: Tehran vows to retaliate if Israel and the West attack nuclear plants
Iran ratcheted up tensions in the Middle East yesterday when its foreign minister declared the country was ‘ready for war’ with Israel and the West.
In inflammatory remarks certain to fuel uncertainty in the volatile region, Ali Akbar Salehi warned that Tehran would ‘not hesitate’ to retaliate if attacked.
His posturing came as Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Israel’s defence minister not to fan the flames during top-level talks in London.
Iran has come sharply back into focus following the end of the Libya conflict.
Mr Hague made it ‘very clear’ to Ehud Barak – who reportedly favours a pre-emptive strike against the rogue Islamic state – to pursue a diplomatic solution.
Iran’s hardliners, led by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been increasingly aggressive in recent weeks sparking fears that the belligerent regime is close to producing a nuclear bomb.
Israel reacted on Wednesday by test-firing a new long-range missile.
Downing Street has also been warned that Iran is concealing technology to enrich uranium – used in atomic weapons – in a mountain base beneath the city of Qom to protect it from air strikes.
Britain is now developing plans for military action against Iran amid mounting alarm about the nuclear threat from Ahmadinejad, who has vowed to ‘wipe Israel off the face of the earth’.
Submarines armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Royal Navy warships could be deployed within range of Iran and RAF planes could carry out reconnaissance, surveillance and air-to-air refuelling.
Diplomats in Whitehall are keen to rein in Iran using a diplomatic solution but admit that ‘all options should be kept on the table’.
However, the UK would take part only if the U.S. launched an attack.
Barack Obama is unlikely to strike before seeking re-election in a year, but the president is aware that action is needed before Iran acquires a nuclear bomb.
Last night, Mr Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, said the regime was ‘ready for war’ while on a visit to Libya.
He said: ‘We have been hearing threats from Israel for eight years. Our nation is a united nation. Such threats are not new to us.
‘We are very sure of ourselves. We can defend our country.’ He warned of retaliation a day after Iran’s chief of staff said Israel and the West would be ‘punished’ for any attack on its nuclear sites.
General Hassan Firouzabadi said: ‘We take every threat, however distant and improbable, as very real, and are fully prepared to use suitable equipment to punish any kind of mistake.
‘The United States is fully aware that a military attack by the Zionist regime on Iran will not only cause tremendous damage to that regime, but it will also inflict serious damage to the U.S.’
Iran insists it has a nuclear programme only to produce energy.
Meanwhile, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered a probe into alleged leaks of plans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Ministers in Tel Aviv believe that domestic opponents who authorised the leaks were undermining the government and ‘gambling with Israel’s national interest’.
In other developments, Mr Hague accused Israel of undermining peace efforts by accelerating settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
He condemned the decision to build at least 2,000 apartments in Jewish-held areas in retaliation for Palestinian efforts to secure recognition as a state at the United Nations.
An MoD spokesman said: ‘The British government believes that a dual track strategy of pressure and engagement is the best approach to address the threat from Iran’s nuclear programme and avoid regional conflict.
‘We want a negotiated solution – but all options should be kept on the table.’
A special unit at the MoD has been instructed to work out the UK’s strategy if the Army should invade Iran.
War planners will look at potential deployments of Royal Navy ships and submarines equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles and RAF fighter jets armed with precision-guided Paveway IV and Brimstone bombs and missiles, surveillance planes and air-to-air refuelling.