LONDON: Iran's supreme leader has pledged to confront and defeat the "cancerous tumour" of Israel as international concern grows of a pre-emptive Israeli strike on the Islamic regime's nuclear installations as early as April.
In a two-hour televised speech on Friday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei defied international sanctions aimed at his country's suspected atomic weapons agenda and promised to retaliate if Israel or the United States opted for military action.
The ayotollah's threats of retaliation came as Leon Panetta, the US Defence Secretary, reportedly said there was a "strong likelihood" of Israel launching a unilateral strike against Iranian nuclear facilities in "April, May or June".
Amid signs of a growing rift between Israel and the US over the use of military force to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, Mr Panetta said: "Israel has indicated they're considering this, and we have indicated our concerns."
Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, believes Iran's program is entering an "immunity zone" that will put crucial elements deep underground beyond the reach of bunker-busting bombs.
Western allies are worried the international coalition built to impose tougher sanctions on Iran could be wrecked by an Israeli air raid against its nuclear facilities, which Tehran insists are for peaceful purposes.
It would probably prompt immediate retaliation against Israel by Iran or its proxies in the Middle East, and if large population centres in Israel were hit, the US could then be drawn into a conflict in defence of its close ally.
With the drumbeats of war growing louder from Tel Aviv, Ayatollah Khamenei referred to Israel yesterday as a "cancerous tumour that should be cut and will be cut", a comment illustrative of his country's historic antipathy to the Jewish state.
"From now on, in any place, if any nation or any group confronts the Zionist regime, we will endorse and we will help. We have no fear expressing this," said the ayatollah, speaking to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution against the Shah. He also offered a rare affirmation of the open secret that Iran assisted the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.
"We have intervened in anti-Israel matters, and it brought victory in the 33-day war by Hezbollah against Israel in 2006, and in the 22-day war" between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip, he said.
Although some military and intelligence chiefs in Israel favour caution, the patience of Mr Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, is running out. In perhaps the most startling instance of sabre-rattling so far, Moshe Yaalon, who heads Israel's strategic affairs ministry and is a former commander of the military, said all of Iran's nuclear installations were vulnerable to attacks.
However, his comments appeared to contradict the assessments of foreign experts and Israeli defence officials who regard the uranium enrichment facility at Qom as too deep to be hit effectively from the air. The site near the ancient holy city is where the Iranians have begun purifying low enriched uranium towards weapons-grade level.