Nuclear Heat Grows Over Iran

JERUSALEM – When Israel dispatched F-16 bombers almost 24 years ago to destroy Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Osirak, the pilots knew they only had to hit a single target. Were Israeli or U.S. planes to be sent today to neutralize Iran’s nuclear program, the mission would be far more complicated: with Iranian facilities spread out, the pilots would have to strike targets across the country, and none of them a large, clearly identifiable reactor.

Speaking last week, though, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was not ready to rule out military action – by Israel. If Jerusalem became convinced, he said, that “the Iranians had significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards.”

Israeli leaders, extremely concerned by the prospect of a nuclear Iran, have been less brazen. If Israel acted alone, “we will remain alone,” Vice Premier Shimon Peres said. “Everyone knows our potential, but we also have to know our limits. As long as there is a possibility that the world will organize to fight against Iran’s nuclear option, let the world organize.”

With the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discussing Iran’s nuclear activities, the rhetoric has become increasingly shrill. Israeli leaders have long warned of what they see as the danger of Iran’s nuclear program to the entire region, and they are hoping the Americans will ultimately prevent Tehran from getting the bomb.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told the Washington Post Sunday that he could not see “how a military solution can resolve the Iran issue. In my view, with Iran having almost self-sufficiency in the technology, the Iranians will go underground … you might delay them, but they will rebuild it with the objective of having a weapon.”

Israeli intelligence officials estimate that Iran could be capable of producing enriched uranium within six months and have nuclear weapons within two years. Earlier this month, head of Israeli military intelligence Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi said that while Iran was not currently capable of enriching uranium to build a nuclear bomb, “it is only half a year away from achieving such independent capability – if it is not stopped by the West.”

Israeli officials have also accused Tehran of trying to dupe the international community.. They believe Iran will try and stave off the threat of sanctions while pushing ahead secretly with its efforts to attain nuclear weapons capability.

ElBaradei admitted Iran had “cheated” in the past about its nuclear program, but said it was now “cooperating.” The IAEA determined in November that Iran was complying with an agreement to cease uranium enrichment. For its part, Iran insists that its program has a purely civilian goal – the production of electricity.

The European Union is urging Tehran to completely ditch its nuclear fuel program to prove it is not seeking to produce atomic weapons. It is holding out a trade accord as an incentive. But German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who along with Britain and France is trying to engage Iran on the nuclear issue, said last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that “diplomatic and political” means were required to persuade Tehran, not force.

As with Iraq, the United States has taken a far more hardline stance. Earlier this month, President George W. Bush hinted at possible military action against Iran. He said he hoped the issue could be resolved diplomatically, but that he would “never take any option off the table.”

In Jerusalem, officials interpreted Cheney’s warning about a possible Israeli military strike as a message to the Europeans to get tough on Iran. A senior Israeli official was quoted as saying that Cheney’s remarks were “intended to tell the Europeans: ‘If you don’t take a greater role in a policy of implementing sanctions and moving vigorously to stop Iran’s nuclear program, then we are not responsible for what Israel will do.'”

Ze’evi said he has been trying to explain the magnitude of the Iranian nuclear threat to European countries. “The Iranians can reach Portugal with nuclear weapons,” he said. “This doesn’t worry the Europeans. They tell me that during the Soviet regime as well they were under a nuclear threat, and I try to explain to them that Iran is a different story.”

Some observers in Israel argue that a nuclear Iran would be less of a threat to Israel than to other countries in the region. They point to reports that Israel possesses a submarine-based second-strike capability.

Arab countries blame Israel for spurring nuclear aspirations in the Middle East. The Jewish state is believed to be the only Middle East country with nuclear arms, although it neither denies nor confirms its possession of such weapons – a policy that has been dubbed “nuclear ambiguity.” Israel has between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads, according to foreign reports.

Israel’s atomic secrets were exposed for the first time almost 20 years ago by Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at the nuclear plant in Dimona in the south of the country. Vanunu, who was released from jail last year after serving an 18-year term for treason, handed information in 1986 to the Sunday Times in London about Israel’s nuclear program He was later kidnapped by Israeli agents in Rome and smuggled to Israel to stand trial.

Dr. Shmuel Bar, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya near Tel Aviv says the chances of Israeli military action are low. “If we act unilaterally, we will be blamed, the Iranians will react, and we will not get public American backing,” he told IPS. Israel, he added, must not turn the Iranian nuclear issue into an Israeli problem. “It is first and foremost an American problem.”

The United States cannot accept a nuclear Iran which would be able to “dictate its positions in the Gulf and in Iraq,” says Bar. He foresees disagreement between Europe and the United States, leading ultimately to unilateral American action. “There could be an oil embargo on Iran with the American Sixth Fleet blocking passage [of Iranian vessels] in the Gulf.”

A growing number of experts now argue that a military option no longer exists because Iran has spread its nuclear facilities across the country and has not concentrated them in one place, as was the case in Iraq. There have also been reports of Tehran setting up dummy nuclear facilities.

A single air strike, therefore, would be insufficient to knock out Iran’s program. What is more, Israel is aware that Tehran would likely respond, possibly with long-range missiles.

This might explain why some in the United States today talk of regime change in Iran, rather than of military action. It is also questionable whether Bush, mired in Iraq, has the appetite for another major military escapade.

But Shmuel Bar does not rule out the possibility of U.S. military action. “Bush is an ideological president, and he isn’t going to be running for a third term,” he says.