WASHINGTON — Israel and its American allies are devising a diplomatic campaign that will use the recent conflict in Lebanon to bolster international efforts to block Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The United Nations Security Council has warned Iran to cease its uranium enrichment program by August 31 or face international sanctions. With the deadline approaching, Israeli diplomats and pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington are gearing up for an intense campaign to convince the international community that Tehran’s support for Hezbollah — particularly its transfer of potent weapons to the terrorist group — underscores the danger of allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
“The grave risk of Iranian proliferation has truly been highlighted by the recent crisis,” Josh Block said. Block is spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group. Pointing out the pervasive pattern of arms transfers from Iran to Hezbollah, Block said, “This kind of sickeningly irresponsible behavior puts the danger of Iran’s nuclear weapons program in extremely sharp relief for the international community, especially as the deadline to impose sanctions at the Security Council rapidly approaches at the end of this month.” The war in Lebanon, Block said, “underscores the extreme danger we face when terror-sponsoring states acquire advanced weapons, let alone weapons of mass destruction, and their proven pattern of transferring those weapons to terrorist groups and nonstate actors.”
Israel and its allies are emphasizing that Iran supplied Hezbollah not only with thousands of relatively low-tech rockets that the terrorist group showered on northern Israel for more than a month, but also with advanced weapons. One such state-of-the-art weapon is the “silkworm” anti-ship cruise missile, which Iran purchased from China under the condition that Tehran would not transfer it to a third party. Iran also supplied Hezbollah with powerful Russian-made anti-tank missiles, as well as with advanced drones. Iran sent at least two drones toward Israel in the past month. Jerusalem suspects that they were carrying explosives. Both were intercepted and destroyed without causing damage, according to official Israeli reports.
Israel says that Iran helped Hezbollah build a vast, sophisticated network of underground bunkers and provided the terrorist group with more than $100 million per year in financial support. According to official Israeli reports, Iranian revolutionary guards were found in southern Lebanon and helped Hezbollah use its anti-ship “silkworm” missiles.
Pro-Israel activists in Washington are arguing that if Iran transferred its most advanced military technology to terrorists, it can be expected to supply nuclear material to Hezbollah once Iran possesses highly enriched uranium.
Referring to the evidence of Iran’s extensive arms exports to Hezbollah, one activist said, “This surely puts some arrows in our quiver.” Pro-Israel activists were encouraged Monday when President Bush said, during a press conference, “We can only imagine how much more dangerous this conflict would be if Iran has the nuclear weapons it seeks.”
“Iran,” Bush added, “has made clear that it seeks the destruction of Israel.”
Jewish groups are working to reinforce the message that the latest fighting reinforces the need for a crackdown on Iran’s nuclear program. But a public, high-profile campaign at the end of August, when Washington is on collective leave, would be of little value, pro-Israel activists said. “This is something you do in quiet, private conversations, diplomatically,” said Nathan Diament, who directs the Washington office of the Orthodox Union. “But to the degree that Iran is boasting a victory, it should be all the more incentive for the Europeans and the Russians and the others to confront Iran at the end of this month rather than allow it another victory lap.”
The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution July 31 that implored Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program by August 31 or face economic and diplomatic sanctions.
Since then, Tehran has thumbed its nose at the resolution. On August 6, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, told reporters that his country intends to expand the number of centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium. He warned that an international attempt to punish Iran for doing so would only boomerang, pushing Iran to use its “oil weapon.” This week, in an interview with CNN, he repeated his assertion that Iran would not comply with the Security Council resolution. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also said several times recently that he does not intend to give up his country’s uranium enrichment program, which he insists is intended for peaceful purposes only.
Iran’s defiant attitude indicates its intention to challenge the international community in a game of chicken, said Barry Rubin, a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. Iran feels emboldened rather than weakened by the war in Lebanon, he said. The war increased Hezbollah’s prestige in the Arab world and, by proxy, Iran’s as well.
The war also underscored the limits of Israel’s military power. It showed that even with bunker-buster and “smart” bombs that Israel used during a month of aerial sorties, it was unable to destroy Hezbollah’s command and control sites. If Israel attempts to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites, it would be unable to wage such a long campaign and would have to take target sites that are much better protected, Israeli military sources said, speculating on what the thinking in Tehran is.
“Iran, without a doubt, is already applying lessons from the air campaign to its underground, fortified nuclear sites,” a senior Israeli reserve officer said, reflecting the thinking of colleagues in the Israeli Air Force.
But while Iran may appear haughty and undeterred coming out of the month-long war that its proxy fought against Israel, there are several developments that ought to be causing concern in Tehran, said Michael Herzog, former military secretary to Israel’s minister of defense. First, Herzog said, Israel has proved in this war that it can “go berserk” and use its overwhelming military air power in ways that most of its adversaries do not anticipate. “The ‘I can do insane things’ notion has always been an element of Israel’s deterrence,” Herzog said.
Conventional wisdom among military observers is that an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations would be an almost crazy step because of its slim chances of success. Now, Iran’s leaders may see such an Israeli attack as more plausible.
Second, Herzog said, the mere erosion of Hezbollah’s military strength in Lebanon should serve to weaken the threat of Iran responding –– from Lebanese soil ––to a possible Israeli military strike against Iran. “Simply put, Iran spent a valuable card in Lebanon,” he said. Although Iran’s regime has been celebrating what it describes as a victory in Lebanon, there are many in the Islamic Republic who do not view the recent developments as an achievement.
“There has been a debate played out in the Iranian press where some have been saying that Hezbollah’s actions prove the high price that can be inflicted as a result of confrontational policies,” said Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Clawson follows the Iranian press.
The editor of the Iranian daily newspaper Shargh was fired earlier this month after publishing articles that doubted the prudence of Hezbollah’s belligerent actions. Clawson said that Iran’s popular hard-line daily newspaper Kayhan assailed Shargh’s analysis, exposing a debate over a fundamental Iranian national security question.
The coming weeks, Clawson said, will be crucial for international efforts to restrain Iran. America and Israel will have an opportunity to leverage the war’s lessons to solidify the international coalition against Iran’s nuclear quest. But, he added, equally if not more important is whether the international community makes sure that the cease-fire arrangements in Lebanon are implemented in a way that “significantly clips Hezbollah’s military presence” and Iran’s ability to rearm the Shi’ite group.
According to Clawson, such measures, if effective, “could reinforce the attitudes inside Iran, by the more cautious types, that confrontation comes with a price tag, not just with advantages.”