Ratcheting up the Nuclear Ante

NEW DELHI – The stunning story by the London Sunday Times alleging that Israel has drawn up plans to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities with nuclear weapons has focused attention on the growing global nuclear danger and on the worsening situation in the Middle East.

It also raises many questions of critical importance. Is the Israeli plan credible, akin to its 1981 attack, which destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor? Does it have the tacit backing of the United States, and at least represent a common approach shared by Tel Aviv and neocons in the United States? What will be the impact of such an attack on the Middle East? And what does the possibility of a nuclear strike mean for the prospect of ridding the world of these terror weapons?

Expert opinion is divided on the first. Israel has trashed the Sunday Times story that appeared Jan. 7. But the New Yorker also carried a story last April by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, alleging that Washington was considering an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such denial fits in cozily with Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity (it neither admits nor denies it has nuclear weapons), as well as the often-used tactic of deception.

The Sunday Times, in 1986, first published photographs of Israel’s uranium enrichment plant at Dimona, and revealed its substantial nuclear arsenal. The paper’s source was technician Mordechai Vanunu, who was soon abducted by Israeli agents and tried and sentenced in Israel to 18 years in jail for disclosing state secrets.

Vanunu’s punishment only confirmed what was long known: Israel has had a nuclear weapons program since the 1950s. It is the sixth nation in the world, and the first in the Middle East, to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability – as early as in 1966.

“This leak-followed-by-denial is part of an Israeli pattern,” says Qamar Agha, an independent New Delhi-based expert associated with Jamia Millia Islamia University. “Israel has repeatedly said it won’t tolerate Iran’s nuclear program. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says it’s ‘an existential threat’ and Israel will use any means to eliminate it.”

“It seems perfectly plausible, indeed likely,” adds Agha, “that Israel, on its own, or jointly with the U.S., will use the military option against Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear capability.”

The Sunday Times alleged that Israel has plans to attack three sites, Natanz, Arak, and Isfahan, possibly with tactical nuclear weapons. These are the locations, respectively, of Iran’s uranium enrichment plant, heavy water reactor, and a uranium gas-conversion facility.

The paper also says that Israeli Air Force pilots have flown to Gibraltar in recent weeks to train for the 2,000-mile round trip to the Iranian targets. When asked whether the Air Force was training for an attack against Iranian facility, the Israeli Army declined comment.

But former Air Force Commander Eitan Ben Eliyahu is quoted as saying that “the defense establishment is prepared for all possibilities. It would be an irresponsible, criminal neglect if a certain country presents a high-likelihood threat without us preparing for it.” Ben Eliyahu also said that the Air Force has been preparing for long-range strikes for many years.

These reported preparations are backed at the policy level by statements of Israeli officials, including Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh who said in November that he wouldn’t rule out a military option against Iran as “a last resort.”

In other reports, Israeli General Oded Tira is quoted as saying: “President Bush lacks the political power to attack Iran. As an American strike in Iran is essential for our existence, we must help him pave the way.” Israel’s part is to “prepare an independent military strike by coordinating flights in Iraqi airspace with the U.S.”

There seems to be significant support for this approach in the U.S. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that President George W. Bush says he would understand if Israel chose to attack Iran.

According to some commentators, the Neoconservatives (Neocons) are “long-time allies of Israel’s Right-wing and the Israel Lobby in the U.S.” Many Neocons have called for an extended war against radical Islam, including Islamic Iran.

Some analysts see Bush’s recent cabinet reshuffle and his new war plans for Iraq as signaling a hard-line position on Iran.

They cite the removal of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte. Negroponte was known for his sober assessment of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capacity and played down threats from it.

Last April, Negroponte said: “Our assessment is that the prospects of an Iranian weapon are still a number of years off, and probably into the next decade.” Many Neocons, including leading figures in the Project for the New American Century, demanded he be sacked.

Bush has executed an operational shift in Iraq by inducting more troops and going on the offensive against hostile operations by Iran and Syria in Iraq. A key element in this is to “counter Iranian and Syrian action that threatens the coalition forces.”

“Whether the Bush administration launches attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities or not, it’s unlikely to restrain Israel from doing so,” says Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations at Delhi University. “It is desperate, confused and without a strategy. It could easily drift towards dangerously extending the war to Iran precisely because it’s not winning it in Iraq.”

Adds Vanaik: “Even if the Sunday Times story is untrue, all this ratchets up pressure on Iran and lowers the threshold for military options. That’s playing with fire. Besides, it will further erode the resistance that Russia and China have offered to tough measures against Iran.”

Early last year, Russia and China were reluctant to get the International Atomic Energy Agency to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council for an unclear case of non-compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But last month, they did not use their veto against a Western resolution (1737) calling for tough sanctions against Iran.

A military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will have a devastating impact. “The attacks won’t be confined to nuclear installations,” says Agha. “They must target military facilities too to ensure that Iran cannot retaliate with missiles and air strikes against Israel and U.S. troops and installations in the Middle East. This will cause extensive destruction.”

The Oxford Research Group estimates that even a non-nuclear strike will cause 10,000 deaths, mainly of civilians. The number will shoot up if nuclear weapons are used. Besides, historic heritage sites like Isfahan will be destroyed.

The consequences would be even graver once the civilian nuclear reactor being built at Bushehr with Russian assistance is loaded with fuel, scheduled for the end of 2007. Bombing it after it has gone critical would cause another Chernobyl, with devastating global effects.

Even more important would be the breaching of a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons since 1945. “It is frightening even to think that nuclear weapons, whether tactical, or strategic arms which are 15 to 100 times more destructive, can be used in the 21st century,” says Vanaik.

The overall human consequences of an attack on Iran will be catastrophic. These are likely to invite a strong retaliation through an accelerated Iranian nuclear weapons program and military attacks on Israeli and U.S. targets.

“This will precipitate a conflagration in the Middle East,” argues Agha. “That will tend to unite Muslims across the board. The only way the US and Israeli can deal with this is by provoking a Shi’te-Sunni sectarian divide, just as in Iraq. This will have further damaging global consequences and will make the fight against terrorism far more difficult. The world will become a far more dangerous place.”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.