Israel is stepping up its effort to gather international support to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
The intensified diplomatic effort is based on the assumption — reportedly adopted this month for the first time as part of Israel’s official political-military strategic planning — that Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it by 2005 at the latest.
According to Israeli press reports, the Israeli strategic plan asserts that while Israel can defend itself against an Iranian nuclear strike, thanks to the Arrow anti-missile system, a pre-emptive strike to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program before it becomes operational is not feasible. That is why diplomatic pressure is given priority, according to a report by the authoritative military correspondent of the daily Yediot Aharonot, Alex Fishman.
Israel’s military has been warning of an evolving Iranian nuclear threat continuously since 1996, but this appears to be the first time it has formally predicted a completion date. It also appears to be the army’s most detailed argument yet for a worldwide diplomatic offensive on the topic.
“This is not only an Israeli problem, and it shouldn’t be,” Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Israeli military chief of staff at the time of the original 1996 intelligence assessment, told the Forward. Asked about the report, an Israeli military source told the Forward that the army does not comment on ongoing planning and operations.
In one indication of Israel’s high degree of concern, Prime Minister Sharon reportedly raised the issue with President Bush during their Oval Office meeting last month, providing him with a comprehensive presentation on Iran’s nuclear efforts.
A report in the Washington Post said Sharon told Bush that Israel believes Iran is much closer to crossing the nuclear threshold than the United States estimates and that administration officials were taking Sharon’s warning as a veiled threat to act militarily if American-led diplomatic efforts did not succeed.
The Yediot report indicated that Israel believes it faces a deadline of no later than mid-2004 by which it must act, before the Iranian reactor becomes operational and environmental risk would become too high.
In recent months, Israeli defense officials have repeatedly stated that Jerusalem sees Iran as its main strategic threat, far more than Iraq or Syria. While the Bush administration has also expressed concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, it gave it lesser emphasis in the run-up to the war against Iraq, during which it insisted on the danger of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program.
But with the war over, the administration is now more actively involved in dealing with Iran. And the Israeli worries are getting a better hearing not only in Washington, but also in Paris and in Moscow, following the disclosure of new information about Tehran’s nuclear program over the past year.
The new information has prompted Western European countries and Russia to become more aggressive in demanding that Tehran sign an additional protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would allow United Nations inspectors to visit suspect sites without warning.
Iranian officials and those from the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, known by its acronym IAEA, have been negotiating in recent months amid a flurry of reports about Iran’s secret program.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times published a comprehensive report asserting that Iran was in the late stages of developing the capacity to build a nuclear bomb. Iran dismissed the report, arguing as it has in the past that its nuclear program is aimed merely at producing energy for domestic consumption.
An IAEA team arrived in Iran Monday to visit several sites and take back samples to its headquarters in Vienna. In July, the IAEA’s general director, Mohamed el Baradei, traveled to Iran. He is to include the findings of the mission in a much-awaited report to the IAEA’s board of governors on September 8.
In June, Baradei gave the board a report critical of Iran. However, the report did not say that Iran was in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and did not ask the IAEA board to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council — much to the chagrin of the Bush administration.
There is speculation that if Iran refuses to sign the new protocol, the IAEA might decide to declare it in violation of the treaty at the September meeting and lodge a formal request to the Security Council, which could open the way to sanctions against Tehran.
The L.A. Times reported that Iran has aggressively pursued nuclear know-how and material from Russia, North Korea, China and Pakistan over the past years. It quoted abundantly from a French report, which it has made available on the Web, claiming that Iran may obtain a sufficient quantity of fissionable materials to manufacture a nuclear weapon within a few years.
This assessment helps explain the recent hardening of the French and the European Union stance toward Tehran. The E.U. has suggested that a trade agreement with Tehran was being put on hold until the nuclear inspection dispute is solved.
The Bush administration has stressed that it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, which it has branded a member of the “axis of evil” alongside Iraq and North Korea.
While Iraq has been dealt with militarily, the administration has struggled with North Korea since Pyongyang withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and publicly claimed it had a nuclear weapon. Observers note that the administration has to settle the issue before Iran goes nuclear and possibly chooses the same path as North Korea.
While President Bush has said that the administration was now trying to put international pressure on Iran to convince Tehran to forgo its nuclear program, he added that “all options remain on the table.”
Intelligence sources told the Forward that contingency plans have been drawn in the Pentagon to strike the main Iranian nuclear reactor in Bushehr. However, the existence of scattered and unknown facilities makes a repeat of the 1981 Israeli raid on a French-built reactor in Iraq unlikely, an assessment shared by Israel, according to the Yediot report.
Israeli planners believe that if Israel were to carry out such a strike, it would prompt too much of a diplomatic outcry, according to Yediot. This is why the military intelligence plan reportedly emphasizes the need to expose Iran’s nuclear efforts.
The main conduit for the disclosure of Iran’s nuclear secrets has been an Iranian exile group. In August of last year, the group, the National Resistance Council of Iran, revealed the existence of two secret nuclear facilities.
While the group said it obtained its information from sources inside the Iranian government, there has been speculation that it had in fact obtained it from American or even Israeli intelligence. The allegations could not be verified.
In any case, intelligence officials and experts said at the time that the information appeared solid, despite the fact that it came from a group that is the political arm of the Mujahedin el Khalk, which is listed as a terrorist group by the State Department and has been sponsored by Saddam Hussein in the past decade.
In December, the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank, published satellite photos of the two sites and said they showed large-scale construction of a centrifuge plant. The institute obtained the shots from a commercial firm, DigitalGlobe, which took them soon after the revelations of the Iranian group.
Neither the Iranian group nor the think tank answered queries seeking comments.
The disclosures forced Iran to make a series of concessions in February. It allowed inspectors to visit one of the facilities, where they reportedly uncovered 160 assembled centrifuges and components for 1,000 more centrifuges that were warehoused in deep bunkers. The regime also admitted that it was planning to build a reactor to produce plutonium in the other facility, although it said it was for medical research. And President Mohammad Khatami declared that his government intended to extract uranium from a mine.
Iran has also been steadily making headway in the development of ballistic missiles that could eventually carry nuclear payloads. On July 20, Iran unveiled the Shihab 3, a missile with enough range to strike Israel.