JERUSALEM (Mar. 15)
When Iran declared late last year that it was suspending development of programs that could produce nuclear weapons, skeptical Israeli officials eyed the move suspiciously.
Now, they say, Tehran’s mid-March postponement of international inspection of its nuclear plants confirms the suspicions that the Iranians simply are playing for time.
For Israel, the Iranian enigma is not academic: Israel’s cities are within range of Iran’s Shihab 3 missile, which is believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear payload.
The latest Iranian move, therefore, poses key questions for the Jewish state: What does Israel do if Iran continues developing nuclear weapons under a stop-start facade of cooperation with the international community? How does it go about independently verifying Iranian programs? How does it keep up international pressure on Iran without seeming to be pushing toward confrontation?
Some of those calls will be made by the Mossad intelligence agency, which has made coverage of Iran a top priority.
Still, Israeli officials believe that — in the near future at least — the battle with Iran will be diplomatic, and they are heartened by the fact that the United States and Europe are keeping up pressure on the Islamic republic to disarm.
Iran’s suspension of International Atomic Energy Agency inspections was seen as a warning to the IAEA board to tone down language censuring Iran for hiding evidence of materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons — or risk losing Tehran’s future cooperation.
If so, the warning seems to have worked.
U.S. officials wanted wording that could have paved the way for U.N. sanctions on Iran. But the final resolution included amendments that effectively defer any threat of U.N. Security Council action against Iran until the next IAEA board meeting in June.
Much of the current standoff revolves around advanced centrifuges that can be used for enriching uranium to the level used in nuclear weapons. Iran first failed to declare that it had such machines. It then argued that its agreement with the IAEA permitted the country to continue assembling centrifuges at a plant in Natanz as long as they weren’t used for uranium enrichment.
The Americans and Europeans, on the other hand, say the agreement proscribes any activity related to potential nuclear weapons development.
The most disturbing development was the recent discovery of traces of weapons-grade uranium on centrifuge components at the Natanz plant.
Israeli experts believe the Iranians might have bought the uranium in Russia or on the Pakistani-based nuclear black market and used the centrifuges to enrich it themselves. Others have a more innocent explanation: that the centrifuges were bought second-hand from Pakistan and came with traces of previously produced uranium.
For the Americans, though, the evidence was damning.
“We think it’s clear that Iran has not made any decision, any strategic decision, to abandon a nuclear weapons effort,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
That view is shared by the Israeli establishment, which makes a clear distinction between the commitments from Iran and from Libya — which recently pledged to end its own weapons of mass destruction programs.
“Libya and Iran are totally different cases,” said Ephraim Sneh, chairman of a key Knesset subcommittee on defense planning and policy. “Behind Libya’s announcement there is a genuine strategic decision by” Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi “to bring his country into the new world. The Iranians, as far as we know, are simply playing for time.”
Sneh believes that by pretending to stop their nuclear weapon projects, the Iranians hope to dupe the Europeans into providing previously withheld “dual-use” items — products designed for civilian use that can be modified and used in the manufacture of weapons.
Regardless of whether or not Iran reopens its facilities to international inspection, Israel’s plan is to monitor as closely as possible what the Iranians are doing.
Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who recently called the Iranian nuclear program the “gravest existential threat to Israel since the founding of the state,” has restructured the agency to focus exclusively on just two issues: global terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Coverage of Iran has been strengthened significantly.
But that doesn’t mean the Mossad is succeeding.
Neither the Mossad nor any other Western intelligence service detected the existence of the Pakistani nuclear black market in real time — even though its activities were only semisecret. The technology peddlers had to come into the open to look for potential clients, even providing printed brochures.
This major intelligence failure illustrates how difficult it is to monitor nuclear developments in a closed country as large as Iran — even more so if Iran makes permanent its temporary suspension of cooperation with IAEA inspectors.
But would Iran dare to go that far with the Americans on their doorstep in Iraq? Israeli analysts think not. They believe Iran soon will invite the inspectors back and try to string them along while clandestinely proceeding with nuclear programs.
The Israelis see their role here as quietly sounding the alarm to induce the Americans to carry out what is essentially U.S. policy: doing all they can to prevent “rogue states” like Iran from going nuclear.
Israeli officials are encouraged by the tough line the Americans and Europeans are taking with Iran. The Europeans, for example, are not yet providing Iran with the “easier access to Western technological aid” they promised if and when Iran fulfills its weapons of mass destruction commitments.
The Europeans first want to make sure the Iranian weapons program has been irretrievably scrapped. Until then, Israel will back fully the American policy to pressure rogue states rather than rely on international nonproliferation treaties that can easily be signed and then ignored.
Israeli officials believe the consistently tough American line could eventually lead to U.N. sanctions on Iran until a possible regime change in Tehran.
But judging by recent elections — in which the conservative hardliners made sweeping gains after disqualifying most opposition candidates — regime change in Tehran could be a long time coming.