Before they have nukes, strike Iran and Iraq next

January 14, 2002|By William Safire

WASHINGTON - The radical Islamic ayatollahs of Iran were responsible for dispatching the shipload of 62 rockets and anti-tank missiles, along with 1,400 mortar shells, to their proxy warriors in the Middle East. Included were 3,000 pounds of powerful new C-4 explosives to be used by suicide bombers against civilians.

The clear purpose of the 50 tons of Iranian arms, intercepted by Israeli commandos the week before last, was to help Yasser Arafat's coalition of terror win Iran's undeclared war on Israel.

While the United States and Israel have for a decade been deluding themselves with a "peace process," Iran and its Palestinian proxies have been gaining ground in their war process.

Caught red-handed, Mr. Arafat is denying any knowledge of what his chief lieutenants and other terror partners have been doing. His pretense of innocence calls to mind Chico Marx's line to a husband when caught in bed with the man's wife: "Who you gonna believe - me or your own eyes?"

The arms were marked in the Iranian language, Farsi, loaded aboard just off Iran's shoreline, packed in watertight containers to be transferred to small boats and floated ashore in Gaza. The ship, the Karine-A, was purchased by the Palestinian Authority's chief arms buyer for $400,000 14 months ago, just after Mr. Arafat rejected President Bill Clinton's Camp David offer and launched his terror campaign.

The Karine-A's captain, Omar Akawi, a loyal officer in Mr. Arafat's naval smuggling operation, promptly confessed the damning details of the purchase and transport of the weaponry, giving the lie to the terrorists' initial denials.

He told reporters he thought the mission would be aborted after Sept. 11, especially after Mr. Arafat's "order" last month to end bloody bombings, but when his Palestinian boss last spoke to him from Greece, no such change of orders came.

This proves to all but the most determinedly blind that the Iran-Arab terror coalition, even with Osama bin Laden's operation routed, has every intention of winning its war.

What brought the radical Persians and Palestinians together? After all, Mr. Arafat sided with Saddam Hussein in the long Iran-Iraq war in the '80s, and was Iraq's cheerleader in the short U.S.-Iraq war a decade ago.

Following Mr. Hussein's Persian Gulf war defeat, Mr. Arafat switched his allegiance to Iran.

The ayatollahs then armed Mr. Arafat's Hezbollah allies in Lebanon and became what the State Department last year labeled the most active state sponsor of worldwide terrorism.

European leaders are embarrassed because they recently gave Palestinians millions to feed the starving - and now find that their money went for C-4 explosives to kill the innocent. (Actually, Europe's diverted funds went a long way; thanks to Iranian subsidy, for only $10 million Mr. Arafat received arms valued at nearly five times that.)

More central to America's security, however, is the strategic reality revealed by the capture of the Karine-A: Tehran has again shown itself to be the world arsenal of terror.

Iran's ayatollahs have been escalating their sponsorship of terrorist war - yesterday on the "Great Satan" of America, today on Israeli Jews, tomorrow on the whole non-Islamic world.

Iran's Hashemi Rafsanjani reminded us recently of the glorious day "when the Islamic world acquires atomic weapons."

He acknowledged that in a nuclear exchange the nations of Islam would suffer damage, but only one great nuclear blast "would destroy Israel completely."

Two terrorist-sponsoring nations are racing to acquire nuclear weapons. One is Iraq, whose scientists already have the know-how. The other is Iran, whose nuclear development is being recklessly aided by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, despite feeble American protests.

Both Iran and Iraq have restive populations longing for freedom from political and religious repression.

In conversations over the years, Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon have said they thought radical Iran would be the greater danger; Americans like me consider Mr. Hussein's threat more immediate.

Iranians and Iraqis require liberation before their dictators gain nuclear superpower.

Target practice against terrorists in Yemen or Somalia may buy Washington time, but George Bush's big decisions are (1) how quickly we pre-empt before being forced to retaliate, and (2) which major terrorist sponsor comes first. Mr. Hussein is in the lead, but the militant ayatollahs are closing fast.

William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times.

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