Israel weighs Iranian threat

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, left, meets with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, religious leader of Iran, in 2002. (Eskinder Debebe/UN/DPI)

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, left, meets with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, religious leader of Iran, in 2002. (Eskinder Debebe/UN/DPI)

JERUSALEM, April 21 (JTA) — On the face of it, the American military victory in Iraq has significantly enhanced Israel’s national security, removing a threat from weapons of mass destruction and opening new chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But there is a downside: Israeli leaders are concerned that Iran could emerge strengthened from Iraq’s defeat and continue to promote terror while developing nuclear weapons that could pose a threat to Israel’s very existence. One worry is that the defeat of Iraq could lead to a fundamentalist backlash in the region spearheaded by Iran, using its close ties with Syria and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah to wage a campaign of terror. Another is that Shi’ite Iran could build close ties with a new Shi’ite-dominated Iraq, projecting fundamentalist influence across the region. But of most concern by far is that, according to some Western experts, Iran is barely two years away from producing a nuclear bomb. Israeli officials maintain that the two prongs of the Iranian threat — nuclear weapons and terrorism — are related. Ra’anan Gissin, a senior aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, declares that Iran uses terror to “create deterrence as it builds a nuclear weapons capability that has not yet become operational.” In other words, the threat of Iranian-inspired terror is intended to make the United States or other would-be aggressors think twice before taking military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Over the past few months, Sharon has been urging visiting U.S. legislators and administration officials to take action to stop Iran from going nuclear. The message seemed to be getting through: After mid-March meetings in Jerusalem, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton announced at an Israeli-American strategic forum in Washington that “the U.S. will focus on stopping Iran getting nuclear weapons.” But it could be too late. Over the past few years, undetected by the world’s most vaunted intelligence agencies or the United Nations’ watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran developed two sites capable of producing the fissile materials from which nuclear bombs are made. One, near the desert town of Natanz, 200 miles south of Tehran, will be able to produce weapons-grade uranium. The other, farther west at Arak, will be able to make plutonium from heavy water. The tip-off on the two sites came last August from an Iranian dissident group, the National Council of Resistance. Until then, the Iranians had claimed that the Natanz site was for “desert irrigation.” Satellite pictures, released in December by the American Institute for Science and International Security, proved otherwise. And when Mohammed Baradei, an Egyptian who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, visited the Natanz site in late February, he counted 160 brand-new centrifuges capable of producing weapons-grade uranium, as well as parts for assembling 1,000 more. Baradei’s Iranian hosts acknowledged that by 2005, they planned to have 5,000 centrifuges fully operational at the desert site. Experts say that would enable Iran to produce enough enriched uranium for at least two nuclear bombs a year from 2005 onward. Experts believe Iran had some help from Pakistan in developing the Natanz technology, but the centrifuges are unique in shape and clearly were engineered by the Iranians themselves. Moreover, Iran has begun mining its own uranium ore in the Yazd area, 400 miles southeast of Tehran. Taken together, these two facts mean that Iran has passed the point of no return: Its nuclear program can no longer be stopped by getting third parties to withhold materials or technologies. The same is true of Iran’s missile technology. “The Iranians cannot be stopped anymore. They have their indigenous capability now, and they will continue their programs regardless of what the international community thinks,” said Uzi Rubin, former head of Israel’s Arrow anti-missile defense program. One of the Iranian-developed missiles, the Shahab-3, has an estimated range of nearly 800 miles, able to reach targets in Israel from western Iran. What makes the Iranian threat most chilling is that Iran’s fundamentalist leaders remain formally committed to Israel’s destruction. For example, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president who retains an influential post, in December 2001 called publicly for the Muslim world to develop nuclear weapons in order to annihilate Israel. Iran also has shown a marked capacity to act against Israeli interests. According to Israeli intelligence, Iran was behind the 1992 and 1994 terrorist attacks on the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Iran regularly supplies Hezbollah with weapons, including long-range rockets, through Damascus, Syria; and in 2002, Iran tried to sell arms to the Palestinian Authority for use against Israel. Indeed, Israel experts say, it was the January 2002 interception by Israel of the Karine A, a vessel loaded with Iranian arms for the Palestinians, that led President Bush to include Iran in the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address later that month. So what can be done to contain or assuage the Iranian threat? First, Israeli experts say, Israel must enhance its defensive and deterrent posture. The Arrow, which could intercept incoming Shahab missiles, does both. Moreover, according to foreign sources, Israel has mounted special launchers on its submarines that are capable of firing nuclear warheads. This would give it a “second strike” capability, hopefully deterring potential enemies from contemplating a first strike. To weaken Iran’s terrorist capacity and ability to spread its fundamentalist message, Israeli experts propose putting pressure on Syria rather than Iran. Syria, they maintain, is more susceptible to Western pressure and also has the power to disarm Hezbollah relatively quickly. Once Hezbollah is disarmed and Damascus distances itself from Tehran, Iran’s scope for terror and political influence will decline, the argument goes. No one in the Israeli establishment believes that after the war in Iraq, the United States will be in any mood for a far more difficult military campaign against Iran. Moreover, many are convinced that it is too late to stop Iran from going nuclear; therefore, they argue, the best way to neutralize a nuclear Iran is to promote regime change from within. David Menashri of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center proposes a dialogue with young reformist forces in Iran, while hanging tough with the conservative clerics who run the country today. That way, in case of regime change, at least the weapons would be in more enlightened hands. Moreover, Menashri adds, if the reformists come to power, the once-flourishing ties between Israel and Iran might even be renewed.(Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.)

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