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Europeans Hail Tehran’s Promise on Nukes, but Israel Says: Beware

October 28, 2003
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Israel is warning that Iran’s acquiescence to a European ultimatum to freeze development of nuclear power should not be trusted.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet this week that Iran does not really intend to suspend its nuclear project, and is “only trying to buy time.”

“Iran’s agreement to put its nuclear project under supervision should be regarded as temporary and limited,” Mofaz said.

Key members of the opposition Labor Party, such as the former defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, and the former deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, share Mofaz’s view.

“I have no doubt that the Iranians cheated the Europeans,” Ben-Eliezer told JTA on Monday. “The Europeans see mostly their economic interest, and they are shortsighted.”

“The Iranians are pulling the legs of everyone,” Sneh said. “Their problem is to buy time. They have pushed back the immediate pressure and will now negotiate over implementing the agreement.”

“The problem is that the Europeans want to be cheated,” he said, suggesting that the positive reaction in Europe to Tehran’s announcement of compliance is indication of how fervently Europe wants to avoid a serious rift with Iran over the issue.

A special team from the International Atomic Energy Agency went to Iran at the beginning of this month and is still there. The U.N.-backed group has set an Oct. 31 deadline for Iran to come clean.

The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany last week claimed they had persuaded Iran’s ruling ayatollahs to suspend the country’s suspected uranium enrichment program and allow international inspection of nuclear sites.

The E.U. foreign ministers said that once Iran signed the protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency approves the country’s revised nuclear program, Europe would provide Iran with technical know-how.

No one in Israel denies that, whatever its ultimate goals, Iran is trying hard to be nice toward the West. This week, it claimed to have deported 225 Al-Qaida members to their home countries.

The United States has said that none of the men appeared to be top members of the terrorist group, but the fact that Iran boasted about the deportations shows that Iran wants to move from confrontation to dialogue, observers said.

“The Iranians have been facing a difficult situation,” Ephraim Kam, deputy head of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said. “They could have resisted the European ultimatum and proceeded with the uranium enrichment program. However, this would have meant facing a difficult battle in the Security Council and – – worse yet — possible military action by the U.S.”

By doing so, Kam said, Iran runs the risk that it will be forced to expose more to the West than it would like.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid-Reza Asefi, announced Sunday that Iran had stopped the uranium enrichment process. Someone in the regime apparently thought the spokesman was going too far, however, and his statement later was corrected to say that the country was “negotiating” to stop the uranium enrichment process.

“This is an indication of the internal debate in Iran,” said Menashe Amir, head of the Persian program on Voice of Israel radio. Amir, considered a top expert on internal Iranian politics, said in an interview that the clerics who run the country are following a two-faced policy.

On the one hand, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei has guided Hassan Rohani, secretary-general of Iran’s national security council, to reach an agreement with the European foreign ministers, Amir said. On the other, the ayatollahs that run the country instigated massive demonstrations protesting Iran’s intention to cooperate with the Europeans.

The newspaper Jumhuri Islami, owned by Khamenei, Iran’s “Supreme Guide,” lashed out against “those who pull Iran by the nose and want to bow before the U.S.”

“If Khamenei wants to avoid confrontation, why those acts of protest?” Amir asked. His explanation: “Iran feels forced to please Europe. It feels that such an understanding would serve as a safeguard against American intervention against Iran.”

Iran has regarded itself as a regional power since the days of the shah. As such, it has aspired to arm itself with both conventional and non-conventional weapons, including ballistic missiles and, more recently, nuclear arms.

One of Iran’s major suppliers has been Russia, which has supplied Iran with more than 100 T-72 tanks since the early 1990s. Three years ago, Iran adopted a 25-year armament plan that relies heavily on Russian arms and technology.

Things got trickier when the cooperation extended to the nuclear sphere. In the mid-1990s, the two countries agreed that Russia would build an $800 million nuclear reactor at Bushehr, Iran. Both Iran and Russia have claimed that the reactor is for civilian purposes only — though some question why a country with such large oil reserves needs nuclear energy.

Iran has stressed time and again that its nuclear installations are subject to supervision of the IAEA, and it is committed to the Non- Proliferation Treaty.

Both Israel and the United States doubt Iran’s declarations. Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, head of Israel’s military intelligence, recently told the Knesset Security and Foreign Affairs Committee that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are trying to obtain tactical nuclear arms “in the immediate future.”

If Iran is not stopped, it could complete its uranium enrichment project by the summer of 2004, which would allow it to produce its own nuclear bombs by 2006.

Considering that Iran’s Shihab-3 missile has a range of nearly 8,000 miles and can reach any point in Israel — and that one of the country’s hard-line clerics has threatened Israel with nuclear obliteration — Iran’s nuclear progress poses a real threat to the Jewish state.

The Europeans intervened due to their concern that further missile development also could threaten European targets.

Kam, who is finishing a book on Iran’s nuclear option, doubts that Iran will give up on its nuclear program, even after the recent agreement.

In addition, some worry that Iran could follow the example of North Korea and resume its nuclear program at a later date — with all its equipment and technology intact.

“No doubt, the penetrating control will make it more difficult for them, but it makes more sense that they will seek clandestine ways to develop their nuclear option, and they may even at one time withdraw from the” non- proliferation treaty, Kam said.

Still, he said, “every month of suspension is a month gained.”

Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed.

“I welcome the developments,” he said. “I hope the Iranians are changing course, but I do not underplay the possibility that they are simply buying time.”

Ben-Eliezer was less hopeful.

“I have said more than once that Iran makes me more concerned than Iraq did,” he said. “Iran poses an existential threat to Israel.”

According to media reports, Israel has been considering a pre-emptive blow against Iranian nuclear installations, similar to the 1981 air raid on Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Israel has dismissed the reports.

Reserve Maj. Gen. David Ivri, who was commander of the Israel Air Force at the time of the Iraq attack, said in a recent interview that a military raid should be the last resort.

Israel “has the capability to attack,” he said. Still, he said, the main goal “should be to try to prevent the neighboring countries from attaining weapons of mass destruction, but through diplomatic means.”

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