Espionage intrigue

August 31, 2004

THE DENIALS are loud and resounding. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee called allegations that the American Jewish lobby received secret information about U.S. policy on Iran from a Pentagon analyst, and passed it onto Israel, "baseless and false." The government of Israel was just as emphatic about the charge: "false and outrageous." The reported FBI investigation touched a nerve. It raised the specter of divided loyalties, Israel spying on its chief ally and benefactor, mudslinging at a pro-Israel president on the eve of his renomination.

There's plenty there to provoke alarming headlines, sharp rhetoric and legitimate cause for concern -- if the allegations prove true. Iran's nuclear program poses a threat to the United States and Israel, though for the Americans it's strategic and for the Israelis it's considerably more immediate. Tehran's insistence on producing nuclear material has pushed Israel to threaten a strike on an Iranian nuclear facility. In 1981, Israel took out Iraq's nuclear reactor to quell similar ambitions.

Yet an Iranian-Israeli face-off would have devastating consequences for the West and for the Islamic world.

The reports about Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin, who is at the center of the investigation, are contradictory. But the fact that he works in a policy office overseen by the ideological Douglas J. Feith clouds the issue. Mr. Feith is a controversial neo-conservative who trumpeted the fall of Saddam Hussein as an engine for democracy in the Mideast. He was an ardent champion of Ahmad Chalabi, the discredited Iraqi expatriate now thought to have had links to Iranian intelligence.

The contradictions also extend to Israel. President Bush is such an unabashed supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that it's unfathomable that Israel couldn't get information on U.S.-Iranian policy if it asked. Would it risk an espionage scandal like the Pollard affair of 1985?

What's ironic is that if the espionage allegations are true, Israel will have likely confirmed that the United States in fact has no coherent or cogent policy on Iran. And the need for one is urgent, given Iran's nuclear ambitions and its less-than-candid dealings with international atomic energy inspectors. The campaign of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has unveiled its plan to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear weapons capability -- it would retain its nuclear energy plants in exchange for any nuclear bomb-making fuel.

Mr. Bush has painted himself into a corner with his harsh position on Iran and its inclusion in the "axis of evil." The International Atomic Energy Agency is expected in early September to release its report on Iran's nuclear program. Mr. Bush should be prepared to respond with a substantive plan to engage Iran instead of his usual, polarizing rhetoric.

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