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Dropping Low Profile, Israel Goes on Offensive Against Iranian Nukes

August 4, 2004
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After months of keeping a low profile on Iran’s nuclear program, Israel has launched an intensive diplomatic campaign to convince the international community to pressure Teheran to drop its efforts to produce a nuclear bomb. Israeli officials say the campaign, involving the United States, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency, is focusing on a September meeting of the IAEA board of governors in Vienna. That body has the power to refer the “Iranian nuclear dossier” to the U.N. Security Council, where international sanctions could be imposed.

The Israeli diplomatic move has been accompanied by a veiled threat of attack on Iranian nuclear facilities if the international community fails to stop Teheran’s nuclear weapons drive. But the Iranians, undeterred, are continuing to pursue an ambivalent and potentially military nuclear program.

Like Israel, the United States is seeking stiffer international action. T! he E.U. position has been less decisive, however, and it is not clear whether the union will back a U.S. demand for sanctions. Europe’s position could be crucial. Israel stopped its public criticism of Teheran after Iran and Libya intimated a readiness late last year to cooperate with the international community in dismantling their nuclear weapons programs.

At the time, Israeli experts said Libya was serious, but they didn’t trust Iran. Still, given the new situation and not wanting to draw attention to its own alleged nuclear capabilities, Israel decided to adopt a low profile on Iran, and let the United States and Europe take the lead in pressuring Teheran to drop its nuclear weapons drive.

Now Israel feels the international community has not been firm enough, and has allowed Iran to get away with a pretense of cooperation while clandestinely furthering its nuclear ambitions.

In late June, Israeli leaders decided to change tack. As a first step, Foreign Mi! nister Silvan Shalom initiated a July 2 meeting in Washington on the I ranian issue with the U.S. national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

Afterward, Shalom declared that the international community “cannot allow the Iranians to move forward in their efforts to develop nuclear weapons.”

Less than a week later, the IAEA’s director general, Mohammed El-Baradei, came to Israel, where all his interlocutors, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, stressed the danger to world peace of nuclear weapons in Iranian hands.

On July 22, when the E.U.’s foreign policy boss, Javier Solana, visited Israel, his hosts made sure his itinerary included a meeting with Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who provided Israeli intelligence material purporting to show Iran’s nuclear duplicity.

The day before, the head of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon (Farkash) Ze’evi, briefed the Cabinet, delivering an assessment — immediately made public — that unless Iran was stopped, it would go nuclear by 2007 or 2008.

Hawkish legislators Ephraim Sne! h of the Labor Party and Ehud Yatom of Likud took their cue.

“If the international community continues to show ineffectiveness, Israel will have to consider its next steps — and fast,” Sneh said.

Yatom was more explicit.

“Israel,” he said, “must destroy the Iranian nuclear facility just as we did the Iraqi reactor in 1981.”

Earlier there had been what appeared to be a calculated leak to the press. On July 18, the London-based Sunday Times reported that the Israeli Air Force had completed military preparations for a pre-emptive strike at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility and would attack if Russia supplied Iran with fuel rods for enriching uranium.

An Israeli defense source, who confirmed that military rehearsals had taken place, was quoted as telling the paper, “Israel will on no account permit the Iranian reactors — especially the one being built in Bushehr with Russian help — to go critical.”

By breaking its silence on Iran, Israel was indicating th! at it does not take the Iranian threat lightly — and neither should t he West. Beside the obvious warning to Iran, the subtext of the Israeli message seemed to be directed at the international community: Act to stop Iran going nuclear or Israel may feel it must take preemptive military action, with all the potentially destabilizing consequences.

Then, on July 29, Israel conducted a successful test off the California coast of its Arrow 2 anti-missile system. Some observers saw the test as yet another message to Iran: In a conflict situation Israel would have the overwhelming strategic advantage of being able to intercept and destroy incoming missiles, another reason for Iran to reconsider its nuclear program.

The Iranians, however, are showing no signs of backing down. On July 25, Seyed Masood Jazayeri, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, warned that if Israel attacks, “it will be wiped off the face of the earth.”

A week later, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi confirmed that Iran had resumed building centrifuges that can ! produce weapons-grade uranium. His statement followed a meeting in Paris in which Britain, France and Germany failed to persuade Iran to stop making the centrifuges and allow spot inspections of its nuclear facilities as promised.

The Europeans had offered to close the “Iranian nuclear dossier” if Iran cooperated with spot inspections and stopped all production of weapons-grade uranium. But Iran has been delaying the inspections, and — though it repeatedly has insisted that it was not making weapons-grade uranium — it acknowledged that it was continuing to make centrifuges that could be used for uranium enrichment. It also has said nothing will stop it from joining the world’s nuclear club.

Like Israel, the United States maintains that Iran is dissembling, pretending to run a civilian-use nuclear program while clandestinely conducting a full-scale nuclear weapons drive. With huge oil reserves, U.S. officials note, Iran hardly needs nuclear energy for civilian pur! poses.

Israeli officials say much will depend now on how the Europe ans respond to the latest Iranian rebuff in Paris, and what line they take at the September IAEA board meeting. If they back the American position, the result could well be a U.N. Security Council debate on a joint resolution threatening Iran with sanctions.

That would be a new phase in the international community’s efforts to stop Iran from getting the bomb. And if that happens, Israel may feel that its new more aggressive campaign had something to do with it.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

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