WASHINGTON — Israel asked the Biden administration last week to speed up the delivery of refueling tankers that could prove critical to striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, but it was told that the aircraft were back-ordered and it was unlikely that its first one would be ready until late 2024, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
The Israeli defense minister, Benny Gantz, made the request last week when he met with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and other senior officials in Washington. Details were reported earlier by Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli newspaper.
While U.S. officials told Mr. Gantz that they would work to alleviate a production backlog, the timing of the delivery is a crucial issue: Biden administration officials are concerned that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel is trying to revive the threat of a military strike against Iran, after arguing that diplomacy has failed and that the country is closer than ever to a threshold capability of building a nuclear weapon.
The request came amid new tensions between Washington and Jerusalem over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Since mid-2018, when President Donald J. Trump pulled out of a deal aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear activities, Tehran has made significant gains in its nuclear fuel production, despite repeated operations by Israeli intelligence services to sabotage uranium-enrichment sites and a factory that produced nuclear centrifuges.
Mr. Bennett, Israeli officials say, created a substantial budget for exercises to rehearse an aerial attack and argued that any effort to restore the nuclear agreement would lead to a flawed deal that would allow Iran to speed ahead toward making a bomb.
In March, Israel ordered the new KC-46 tankers, which would be used to refuel its bombers in the air, allowing them to reach their targets in Iran and return. Boeing is expected to provide eight of the aircraft, for $2.4 billion, with the first delivery scheduled for late 2024. But the United States Air Force is also eager for the planes, which are critical to its effort to focus forces on the Indo-Pacific, and to create a larger military presence to counter China in the region.
Israel’s current fleet of tankers is more than 50 years old and based on the Boeing 707. While they still fly, the new fleet of KC-46 tankers would give Israel far more range and ability, because it can refuel fighter jets and bombers and also receive fuel itself while in flight.
The ability to refuel is critical — otherwise Israeli planes would have to depend on the aging tankers or land in the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. Both countries are rivals of Iran, but neither wants to be implicated in assisting an attack.
Funding for these aerial gas stations would ultimately come from U.S. taxpayers; the Boeing tankers would be paid for from the annual military aid package to Israel.
The debate over what kind of capability to give to Israel — and how quickly — is an old one in Washington. In 2008, President George W. Bush deflected requests from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for specialized bunker-busting bombs and the B-2 bomber, and to rent about 10 flying tankers, which Mr. Olmert said would be needed in any Israeli attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex at Natanz. Part of the operation would have involved borrowing U.S. refueling capabilities.
Vice President Dick Cheney argued at the time that the United States should give Israel exactly what it sought, but he lost the argument, Bush administration officials later said. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney allude to the episode in their memoirs, but they do not mention that they told the Israelis that they were authorizing covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s effort with a new generation of cyberweapons.
That program, code-named Olympic Games, ultimately became the joint Israeli-American effort that produced the Stuxnet worm and ultimately destroyed more than a thousand Iranian centrifuges.
Israel later developed other capabilities and trained for them. On several occasions during the Obama administration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was on the brink of ordering a strike, according to Israeli officials and a Times interview with Mr. Netanyahu in 2019. But the prime minister backed off at the last minute, in large part because of fear of an irreparable breach with Washington.
But in 2017, when the Israeli air force determined that it needed to replacing its refueling planes, Mr. Netanyahu’s government did not immediately place an order. Iran’s nuclear program seemed under control — largely because it had shipped 97 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country under the 2015 agreement that Mr. Netanyahu had vociferously opposed. Training for strikes against Iran slowed.
They have been revived. Israeli planners, according to several current and former officials, believe that if they do conduct an attack, it will take many repeated bombings of some of the facilities — especially Fordow, a fuel enrichment center buried deep in a mountain on an Iranian military base. But time will be short, they contend, and so they would have to refuel quickly.
U.S. officials say that they do not believe an attack is imminent and that they think Mr. Bennett, in so publicly preparing for military action, may be seeking far tougher terms in an ultimate deal between Iran and the West.
David E. Sanger and Helene Cooper reported from Washington, and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.