Behind-the-scenes at U.n., Sharon Will Have One Focus — Iranian Nukes

Ariel Sharon won’t have much time to savor this week’s expected plaudits at the United Nations for the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. One word tops the Israeli prime minister’s behind-the-scenes U.N. agenda: Iran. Sharon’s preoccupation at the launch of the 2005-2006 U.N. General Assembly will be the Islamic republic’s potential to build nuclear weapons, Israeli officials said. Israel hopes to persuade board members of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, to refer Iran to the Security Council for sanctions when the IAEA board meets Monday in Vienna.

“It’s going to be a good session” because of the successful Gaza withdrawal, said one Israeli official, who spoke anonymously because Israel prefers to maintain a low profile when it comes to Iran. “But next week’s meeting is on everyone’s minds.”

The entire Israeli political spectrum regards Iran and the bomb as a worst-case scenario. After all, Iran’s president has spoken publicly of attaining nuclear weapons so that Iran can annihilate the Jewish state, even if millions of Iranians are killed in an Israeli counterstrike.

Israel long has had the Bush administration as a powerful ally in pressing the international community to force sanctions on the Iranians, but three developments in recent weeks have dramatically aided Israel’s case:

On Aug. 10, Iran broke the IAEA inspectors’ seals on a uranium-enrichment plant after rejecting a compromise solution from the European Union that would have granted Iran political and economic incentives and allowed it to continue a civilian nuclear program.

Israel never favored such dangling-carrot gestures, saying sticks — particularly economic sanctions — were more likely to be effective.

Iran continues to insist that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful energy purposes, though its huge cache of oil and its own past pronouncements suggest otherwise. The election this summer of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-line Islamist widely seen as forced through by the country’s powerful clerics, doesn’t help matters.

A Sept. 2 report from IAEA director Mohammed ElBaradei — otherwise known for his cautious language when it comes to nuclear violators — catalogs in 15 pages Iran’s systematic efforts since 1985 to cover up its attempts to achieve nuclear weapons, concluding with unusually tough language: “In view of the fact that the Agency is not yet in a position to clarify some of the important outstanding issues after two and a half years of intensive inspections and investigation, Iran’s full transparency is indispensable and overdue.”

The European Union — particularly the trio of Britain, Germany and France that had been negotiating with Iran — is off the fence and now actively advocates sanctions.

“German high-level diplomats are traveling around the globe to IAEA board members with the aim to gain their support to transfer the issue of Iran to the attention of the Security Council,” Martina Nibbeling-Wriessnig, the spokeswoman for the German Embassy in Washington, told JTA.

It’s none too soon for Israel, where intelligence officials believe Iran is less than a year away from knowing how to put a nuclear bomb together. There’s generally a two-year gap between know-how and production, which would forecast a bomb by as early as 2008 if Israel is correct.

Other nations’ intelligence agencies are slightly more sanguine, suggesting an Iranian nuclear bomb could be as far off as 2015, but pro-Israel lobbyists — who have made Iran their No. 1 priority in recent years — say the timeline is less important than containing a rejectionist, anti-Western regime.

“Iran is approaching the point of no return,” said Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “In order to slow their progress and prevent them from getting the nuclear bomb, you need a united international community making good on its threats of economic and political isolation. Without that kind of serious application of will, Iran will continue to flaunt, embarrass and ignore international community demands that they end their nuclear program.”

President Bush made clear again Tuesday that he believes the matter is a high priority.

“It is very important for the world to understand that Iran with a nuclear weapon will be incredibly destabilizing,” he said in remarks before a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. “We must work together to prevent them from having the wherewithal to develop a nuclear weapon.”

No one is optimistic. There are 35 IAEA board members, and some of them have reasons of their own to keep the United Nations out of the nuclear-monitoring business. Israel, the United States and European nations are expected to work especially hard next week on persuading India — a country that itself defied nuclear protocol — to back Iran’s isolation.

Even if the IAEA refers the matter to the Security Council, chances are still slim that sanctions will be forthcoming anytime soon. Russia — another country that chafes at nuclear protocols — has declared that it believes Iran is still in compliance with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and China is believed to have the same view. Both countries have Security Council vetoes.

Bush said he would raise the matter specifically with the Russian and Chinese leaders when he meets with them in coming days.

Complicating matters is Israel’s own reported nuclear-weapons capacity, believed to number close to 200 warheads. The Israeli government has never confirmed that Israel has nuclear weapons, though Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres confirmed it in a speech to visiting American Jewish leaders in 2003, when he was not in government.

Bush suggested that whatever the outcome, the United States and its allies are still willing to find a way out of the impasse.

“It’s a right of a government to want to have a civilian nuclear program,” he said. “But there ought to be guidelines in which they be allowed to have that civilian nuclear program. And one such guideline would be in such a way that they don’t gain the expertise necessary to be able to enrich” uranium.

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