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Inspectors visit Iran amid fears of conflict; U.N. focuses on N-effort as Israeli concerns grow

United Nations investigators began two days of meetings in Iran on Monday, offering Tehran's government a chance to stem growing concerns that its nuclear program will spark a military conflict.

At the same time, concern is growing in Israel that the country is vulnerable to a devastating counterstrike if it attacks Iran's nuclear program.

Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency flew to the Iranian capital Sunday for their second round of talks in a month.

The visit begins a week after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country will boost production of 20 percent enriched uranium at a deep underground facility in Fordo, near the holy city of Qom. "We hope to have some concrete results after this trip," the IAEA's top inspector, Herman Nackaerts, said at Vienna International Airport.

The rising tensions over Iran's nuclear work has driven oil prices higher. Israel and the United States have refused to rule out military action against Iranian nuclear sites to prevent the country from acquiring a weapon. Iran, which hid its work for more than a decade before 2003, says that it wants nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

"This meeting is a crucial opportunity for everyone, including the Iranians, to get serious," Arms Control Association Director Daryl Kimball said. "Getting serious means focusing on the near-term problem that 20 percent enriched uranium represents," which drives the "hysterical war talk in some quarters." Iran sent the European Union a letter last week asking for negotiations over its nuclear program to resume at the "earliest possibility," according to a copy of the one-page document obtained by Bloomberg News.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton of Britain met Saturday and said they are reviewing the Iranian offer.

"The stakes are higher than ever before due to the heightened tensions, and the flexibility of both sides probably are at their lowest," said Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council. Without compromise, "they will face a high risk of a confrontation that neither side actually wants."

Despite its confident saber-rattling, worry is growing in Israel that the country's population centers would be vulnerable to a devastating counterstrike if it decides to attack Iran's nuclear program.

An announcement this week that a mobile rocket defense system will soon be built just outside Tel Aviv, where Israel's sprawling military headquarters sits smack in the middle of office towers, museums, nightspots and hotels, caused some jitters. Israeli officials cite intelligence reports that Tel Aviv would be a main target of any attack.

Increasingly, the debate in Israel is turning to whether a strike can do enough damage to the Iranian program to be worth the risks. Experts believe that any attack would at best set back, but not cripple, the Iranians. Skepticism about Israel's ability to defend itself runs deep in Israel. Israelis still remember Iraqi Scud missiles striking in the center of the country 20 years ago. In 2006, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia seemed able to rain rockets at will during a monthlong conflict with Israel. A scathing government report issued months ago suggested that the home front is still woefully unprepared.

In a questionably timed move, the Cabinet minister in charge of civil defense in recent days resigned to become the ambassador to China.

Vice Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who also serves as minister of intelligence and atomic energy, indicated Saturday that Israel was facing a new type of peril.

"Whereas in the past, there was a battlefield where tanks fought tanks, planes fought planes, there was a certain push not to see the home front affected. Now the war is mainly in the home front," said the normally tight-lipped Meridor.

"The whole of Israel [is vulnerable to] tens of thousands of missiles and rockets from neighboring countries. So, of course, we need to understand the change of paradigm," he continued. "If there is a war -- and I hope there isn't a war -- they are not just going to hit Israeli soldiers. The main aim is at civilian populations."

An Israeli military strike would very likely draw an Iranian retaliation, experts believe, which would involve either Iran firing its long-range Shahab missiles or acting via local proxies of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza or even Bahsir Assad loyalists in Syria.

Experts believe that the experience of the 2006 war against Hezbollah, in which the guerrillas rained 4,000 rockets onto Israel, is just a small taste of what could lie ahead.

But this time, Israel's main population centers are believed to be possible targets. In the past, rockets fired from Gaza or Lebanon have been directed at smaller, marginal communities, the largest being regional centers such as Haifa in the north or Beersheba in the south.

Leaders believe that Israel's main cities would be targeted by more sophisticated, longer-range missiles. Jerusalem is considered relatively safe because of its Islamic holy sites. But the Mediterranean coast, home to most of the country's population, with Tel Aviv as the gleaming target at its center, seems like a very inviting target.