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With Iraq War Over, Pressure Rising Against Iran About Nuclear Weapons

June 24, 2003
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Conspiracy theorists and opponents of President Bush may suggest that Washington’s decision to ratchet up the rhetoric against Iran this month is meant to further the fog of war, distract Americans from the domestic economy and keep the public rallied around the administration.

But pro-Israel advocates say that nothing negates the threat to Israel and others posed by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and Tehran’s active undermining of U.S. policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

And in contrast to the state of affairs before the recent Iraq war, when America seemed to be standing against the world, now the mullahs who control Iran are facing mounting international pressure — particularly from the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency — and from the European Union and Russia.

Observers say the increasingly united front abroad — coupled with daily demonstrations by ordinary Iranians demanding more freedom — ultimately benefits Israel: The noose may be closing around a regime the Jewish state sees as more dangerous than Iraq.

“Every day Iran calls for the extermination of Israel and they have weapons aimed at Israel, so this is not a hypothetical,” says Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “So, of course, anything done to minimize the danger Iran represents is good for Israel.”

But Hoenlein and others say it’s not only in Israel’s interest for Iran to be reined in or undergo a regime change: A nuclear Iran also may threaten its Arab neighbors, spark an arms race in the region and perhaps one day even threaten targets in the West.

At the same time, Iranian support for extremist Palestinians and groups like Hezbollah torpedoes any aspiration for peace that Palestinian or Arab moderates may hold, analysts say.

“This is an Israeli issue and it’s not an Israeli issue,” says Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Iran is the most frenetic sponsor of terrorism in the world and works most actively to undermine the peace process, which is why this effort is being led primarily by the Americans and the Europeans — and not on Israel’s behalf.”

Iran reportedly initiated its nuclear program back in 1957, under the Shah of Iran and with the assistance of the United States.

The program was shelved after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but it was restarted in the 1990s with the help of countries like Russia and Pakistan.

With Washington-Tehran relations hostile, the United States opted for a policy of containment with barely any dialogue. In contrast, Europe chose engagement, believing relations with Iran would allow it to engage in “constructive criticism.”

While it may seem that Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons suddenly appeared on Washington’s radar screen only recently, both the Administration and the IAEA were talking about them well before the war in Iraq.

In August, the Iranian exile group National Council of Resistance accused Iran of trying to produce weapons-grade uranium, a charge later supported by satellite pictures taken by the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security.

IAEA officials confirmed the production potential on a February visit to Iraq.

“The U.S. will focus on stopping Iran getting nuclear weapons,” U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton told Israeli officials in mid-March.

The IAEA this month pressed Iran to sign a more restrictive protocol of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The NPT allowed countries to develop nuclear materials as long as they were declared and inspections were permitted of nuclear facilities, with advanced notice.

The treaty was beefed up after 1991, when the first Gulf War revealed Iraq’s secret nuclear program, humiliating the IAEA.

The new NPT protocol allows for more intrusive surprise inspections of any facility within a ratifying nation’s territory. Iran refuses to ratify the new protocol.

On top of this, there has been mounting tension between America and Iran over Iran’s role in allegedly roiling the waters in neighboring Afghanistan; supporting the uprising of fellow Shi’ites in Iraq and attacks on U.S. troops stationed there; providing sanctuary to Al-Qaida operatives; and funneling arms, cash and other support to Palestinian terrorist groups.

Last week, President Bush said he would “not tolerate construction of a nuclear weapon” by Iran. Analysts took this as a bit of saber-rattling to compel Oran to accept inspections, since the consensus in Washington seems to be that force is a last resort.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin — who recently reassured Hoenlein and other U.S. Jewish leaders of his opposition to a nuclear Iran, but whose country has helped Iran build a controversial nuclear power plant — also appealed to Iran to cooperate with the IAEA.

The European Union, Iran’s largest trading partner, has not suspended trade talks with Tehran but last week endorsed coercive measures “and, as appropriate, the use of force” against any government found to be lying to the IAEA about its nuclear intentions.

“Just as there are more people here who think some carrot needs to go with the stick, on the European side there’s a recognition that their policy also failed and that there needs to be more stick with the carrot,” said Scott Lasensky, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

“For Israel and supporters of Israel, this growing convergence between the Americans and Europeans is only a positive development,” Lasensky said. “A more cohesive coalition gives the Iranians fewer opportunities to exploit the differences and makes the stick of containment more credible.”

The IAEA on Thursday criticized Iran for possibly using civilian nuclear facilities to make weapons.

If Iran continues to resist the IAEA, the U.N. Security Council may step in this fall. The Council is empowered to slap sanctions or authorize use of force.

However, Iran-watchers note that there is broad consensus within Iran — which historically has viewed itself as a regional power — that nuclear weapons are a point of national pride and that the country must be nuclear for self-defense purposes from nuclear-armed neighbors Russia, Pakistan and, it is believed, Israel.

That, and the fact that an Iranian nuke reportedly is so far along in development, leads some observers to suggest that the Bush Administration should focus its efforts more on who pushes the buttons in Iran by supporting pro-democracy forces.

Observers say that a nuclear Iran with the same radical leadership would be able to remove any diplomatic leverage against it, enabling it to resist any sort of international pressure to reform domestically or stop supporting terrorism.

But the worst-case scenario is that Iran could use its nuclear weapons for offensive, not purely defensive, purposes.

“When you determine the threat a country represents, you try to determine its intent and capability,” says Rebecca Dinar, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby that long has pressed Congress to take a hard line against Iran.

“Not every nuclear country poses a threat. But Iran has made its intentions clear,” Dinar said. “Iranian officials have stated on numerous occasions that they would like to ‘blow Israel into the sea.’ And that’s what makes its growing capability so threatening.”

Indeed, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who still wields considerable influence in Iran, was quoted in December 2001 saying that “a single atomic bomb has the power to completely destroy Israel, while an Israeli counterstrike can only cause partial damage to the Islamic world.”

The notion of nuclear-induced “mutually assured destruction,” which helped keep the U.S.-Soviet status quo during the Cold War, may not deter the Iranians, says Pooya Dayanim, president of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee.

Even if such a cataclysm were to kill millions of Palestinians in the process, or if Israel were to return fire with a bomb of its own, the mullahs may see an acceptable tradeoff.

“If they’re thinking their days are numbered, they may consider this to be their last revolutionary act: going down in history as having destroyed ‘the Zionist entity,’ ” Dayanim says. “They’d figure there would still be a billion Muslims left.”

Israeli security fence going up,

but it’s a lightning rod for criticism TEL AVIV, June 23 (JTA) — An austere monolith of reinforced concrete, the 25-foot-high wall that separates parts of Israel from the West Bank conjures images of the Berlin Wall, Hadrian’s Wall or even the Great Wall of China.

But some Israelis fear that the wall — part of a security barrier that will have electronic fences, ditches, patrols and high-tech monitoring devices — may bear a greater resemblance to the Maginot Line, the fortification France built in the 1930s to protect itself from German assault.

That supposedly impregnable line of defense failed to protect France from German attack in 1940.

The Middle Eastern wall, being built to protect Israel from Palestinian infiltration and assault, already has failed.

Last week, Palestinian terrorists managed to crawl through a sewage tunnel underneath the barrier near the Palestinian city of Kalkilya, cut through steel grating and make it to Israel’s Highway 6, where they shot dead Noam Leibowitz, a 7-year-old girl in a passing car.

Only small sections of the fence actually will include a wall, in areas where Palestinian towns and cities come so close to the fence that Palestinians could shoot at Israelis nearby.

Called the “security fence” by the military establishment and the “separation fence” by many others, the barrier has been assailed in the press and by some right-wing politicians as a white elephant — a costly obstacle unable to thwart determined terrorists.

Yet this is hardly the first time the $200 million, 100-mile-long fence has come under political fire. Ever since the Cabinet gave the nod to contractors to begin their massive excavations last July, the fence has served as a lightning rod for controversy.

It runs roughly along the contours of the Green Line, which demarcates the boundary that separates Israel proper from the West Bank, captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. At certain points, however, the fence is slated to cut east into the West Bank to protect large Jewish settlements.

The Palestinian Authority has charged that the fence is the first step in the establishment of a border that would create a Bantustan-style Palestinian state, with isolated communities in non-contiguous territories at the mercy of the Israeli army.

Palestinians living along the Green Line also have accused the Israeli government of stealing their lands to clear a path for the fence — though they have been compensated for their losses.

For their part, Israeli settlers fear the fence could one day isolate them on the Palestinian side of an international border. Though Israel says the location of the fence is temporary and could be moved after a final peace agreement, many believe the fence will establish the de facto border of a future Palestinian state, which most settlers vehemently oppose.

“We’ve opposed the fence since it was first debated in the government almost two years ago,” said David Wilder, a leader of Hebron’s Jewish community. “It is a de facto political determination — in fact a border — which only radiates weakness to the Arabs. And, as the last few weeks have shown, it does not stop terror.”

One should not build a fence to fight against terrorism, he said.

“The only way to prevent terror is to uproot it where it starts, in Palestinian cities,” Wilder said.

Put simply, the underlying principle behind the fence is physical separation: us here, them there.

“Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean live 10 million people,” Israel’s former prime minister, Ehud Barak, said at a conference last week that examined the failures of the July 2000 Camp David summit.

The land between the river and the sea can “either be a Jewish state or a democracy,” Barak said. If Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the Palestinians are not given the vote, he said, “then Israel will be an apartheid state.”

In his 90-minute speech, Barak slammed the current Israeli government for dragging its feet in building the wall.

He said that had the wall been built sooner — plans for the fence were explored as early as 1994, under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — then an additional “500 people could have been walking among us today.”

Dozens of local Israeli leaders whose communities are situated close to the Green Line have been making the same argument. Some, like Danny Atar of the Gilboa Regional Council, have said the Sharon government’s delays in building the fence constitute criminal negligence.

Defense Ministry sources contend that the fence’s construction is a Herculean task.

“It’s like building a superhighway on tough terrain under constant attack,” said Netzach Mashiach, the Defense Ministry’s project manager of the Seam Line Construction.

Over the past 11 months and despite a bitterly cold and wet winter, Defense Ministry officials said, contractors have excavated 15 million tons of earth, replaced it with millions of tons of gravel, sand and concrete and laid the groundwork for a “dead zone” stretching 65 yards on either side of the fence.

Besides the millions of dollars worth of electronic equipment required to monitor movement along the fence, the ministry is to install 310,000 square yards of metal fencing and 1,000 miles of barbed wire.

Military sources interviewed at the site of last week’s terrorist shooting said the project has been hampered by frequent Palestinian sabotage.

“We lay down a stretch of 100 meters of fencing and they steal or destroy 50 of it,” one source said.

Looters also have been stealing everything that is not bolted down — and much that is, they added.

Mashiach says a fence is only as good as the forces that monitor it and the intelligence units that provide the Israeli army with alerts.

“Every obstacle can be infiltrated if it is not properly patrolled and maintained,” he said.

The fence’s failure to save the life of last week’s young casualty is not due to faulty construction, but to the fact that the fence is not yet complete, Mashiach said.

The day after the attack, the sewage tunnel under the fence near Kalkilya still had not been fitted with electronic monitoring systems. There were no soldiers posted in the guardhouses set up every 500 yards along the 1,300-yard wall. Army patrols were sporadic.

The fence is slated for completion in early July, according to Mashiach, though he said he wouldn’t be surprised if it was “a few days” late.

Kalkilya, along with several other Palestinian cities that straddle the fence line, are especially problematic, said Itzhak Ron, the security officer in charge of protecting the residents of the Southern Sharon Regional Council, which abuts Kalkilya.

The teeming Palestinian city looms on a hill barely 800 yards from the eastern edge of the Israeli city of Kfar Saba. Separating the two cities is problematic, Ron said, because for years workers from the West Bank metropolis have been dependent on jobs in Israel.

Even the Palestinian water, sewage and electrical grids are connected to those on the Israeli side.

“We never promised that this would provide 100 percent security, because nothing can,” Mashiach said. “This is the reality in which we live.”

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