Israel sees nuclear threat from Iran as near critical stage

Decades after destroying Iraqi reactor, Israelis say Iran is larger problem

October 27, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Two decades after Israeli warplanes destroyed an Iraqi reactor in a daring attack to prevent Saddam Hussein from producing atomic weapons, Israeli officials believe they may face a larger nuclear threat from Iran.

"The threat perceived by Israeli officials is considered to be serious, and to be growing to a critical stage," said Gerald Steinberg, an associate professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv and a specialist in Middle East arms control.

Experts warn that if Tehran's uranium enrichment program leads to the production of nuclear weapons, Iran will have upset the balance of power in the region, and possibly force Israel to abandon its policy of nuclear ambiguity and acknowledge its own weapons stockpile.

"The international community has a huge stake in Iran not going nuclear," said Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs for the Nixon Center in Washington. If Iran does not alter its policies, it "will soon reach a point of no return. Irrespective of what they say the uranium is for, they will eventually be able to build the bomb."

Iranian officials have denied that they are developing nuclear weapons and have vowed to continue the enrichment program that they say is essential for generating electricity.

But there is broad agreement among the international community that Iran's enrichment program involves far more uranium than is needed to fuel electrical plants.

Israeli officials and others studying weapons proliferation in the Middle East say the time to act is now.

"One doesn't want Iran, which is a terror-sponsoring state, to have nuclear weapons," said a senior Israeli army officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It will strategically change the balance of power in favor of the axis of terror. One cannot help but relate differently or with more caution or with more restraint to a country that has the threat of nuclear weapons behind it. It will give terror a free hand."

In August, Iran threatened to destroy Israel's nuclear facilities, prompting a terse response from the Israeli government that Israel "knows how to defend itself." Iran's deputy defense minister, Ali Shamkhani, responded, "We will not sit to wait for others to do something to us."

In September, Iran tested a new surface-to-surface missile, the Shihab 3, with a reported range of 1,200 miles. If the weapon's capabilities are as described by Iran - Israeli experts doubt its range and accuracy - the missile could reach Tel Aviv.

Israeli officials say they are content to await action from the international community. But Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, the army's deputy chief of staff, told the newspaper Yediot Ahronot that they would wait only "until we reach the point in which we shall have to rely on ourselves."

In February, Israel received the first of more than 100 U.S.-built F-16I aircraft that military observers say are equipped with extra fuel tanks. In June, Israel bought nearly 5,000 U.S.-made smart bombs, including 500 so-called "bunker busters" capable of destroying 6-foot-thick concrete walls buried underground.

Army officials say the purchases and the tensions with Iran are coincidental.

"The arms transfer process between the U.S. and Israel is a long and bureaucratic procedure," Steinberg said. "We are probably reading too much into this to say that it is a direct response to the current tension over Iran. But I think it would be accurate to see the strengthening of Israel's qualitative edge as consistent with the increased threats."

The Israeli military is not ruling out bombing Iran's nuclear centers.

"The important point is to prevent the present regime from reaching a nuclear option," Israel's army chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, said last month. "All options for preventing this will be considered."

But destroying Iran's nuclear facilities would be far more difficult than the operation in Iraq in 1981 that destroyed its French-built Osirak reactor. Iran's nuclear program is spread over several sites, some deeply buried, and an attacker would face Iranian forces capable of launching a counterattack.

"It is highly unlikely that Israel would do a military strike," said Kemp. "I don't think that the Israelis would want to be a leader in this. Their argument is that this is a problem not just for Israel but for the rest of the world."

Kemp said Iranian officials know Israel's capabilities. "They know what weapons Israel has, and they know if they do anything horrendous they would get hit 10 times over."

An analyst who advises the Israeli government described Iran's actions as "splendid brinkmanship" and said he saw no need for immediate military action. But he warned that not referring the issue to the United Nations Security Council on Nov. 25 would "allow [Iran] to think that they can continue this brinkmanship without paying any price."

Shai Feldman, director of Israel's Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies, said Iranian leaders are "terrified that people are out to get them, especially the Bush administration," and that they had seen that North Korea had not been punished after saying that it has nuclear weapons.

"If I were an Iranian defense planner, I would rather be North Korea than the state of Iraq," Feldman said. "That's a pretty strong incentive for developing a nuclear weapon. It's a strategic imperative to be in a situation where you have the insurance policy that the North Korean regime enjoys."

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