For Israel, it’s the classic “I’ve got good news, but you might want to hear the bad news first” scenario.
Just when a confluence of unrelated events revived the prospect of peace talks with the Palestinians, Iran’s potential nuclear threat to the Jewish state suddenly seems greater than ever.
In fact, the Iran dilemma is almost the mirror image of new hope with the Palestinians: The prospect of a nuclear-armed, radical Islamic regime suddenly has moved from the “within years” to the “within months” column, differences between the United States and Europe are dogging resolution — and the United States wants Israel to just sit still.
Reports of Iran’s accelerated development of nuclear material, as well as missiles to deliver it, have profoundly unsettled Israelis.
“We believe we know what the real intentions of the Iranians are,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said last week in Cleveland at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American Jewish federations. “The real intention of the Iranians is to develop a nuclear bomb.”
The level of agreement over keeping at bay a nation that routinely calls for Israel’s elimination and glorifies suicide bombers reached across Israel’s otherwise fractious political culture.
“Israel cannot, cannot live under the shadow of nuclear Iran and the bomb,” Ephraim Sneh, a leader of the opposition Labor party, said on CNN.
“Israel is very vulnerable,” said Sneh, who was in Washington last week. “All our economic and intellectual assets are concentrated in a piece of 20 and 60 miles. That’s all. Two bombs can turn Israel into a scorched Third World country. We cannot live with it.”
Yossi Beilin, leader of the dovish Yahad party, said the issue hangs over the nation at a time when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s death, forthcoming Palestinian elections and the Bush administration’s post-election energy present renewed opportunities for peace in the region.
“Iran is a very, very important issue,” Beilin said. “For us it is hovering, it is a problem.”
Israel and the United States were hoping the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would announce tougher measures at its board meeting Thursday, including more rigorous international monitoring and a trigger mechanism that automatically would refer any violation of Iran’s nonproliferation agreement to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.
Mindful of this week’s IAEA meeting, the Iranians signed an agreement last week with France, Germany and Britain to temporarily suspend their uranium enrichment efforts.
Iran announced on Monday that the suspension, in effect until Iran works out a long-term agreement with the international community, is now underway.
Instead of assuaging concerns, however, the agreement underscored skepticism about Iran’s intentions. Within days of signing the agreement, a reliable opposition group said Iran was using advanced technology to enrich uranium at military sites and keeping the activity secret, presumably to exempt it from the suspension.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran also said that the country had purchased enriched uranium in 2001 and designs for nuclear warheads in the mid-1990s.
Iran dismissed the claims out of hand, but on Friday European diplomats — some apparently from the same nations that had negotiated the suspension agreement — were telling reporters that Iran was accelerating enrichment ahead of the suspension.
The diplomats were furious with the obvious effort to get Iran as close as possible to weaponization before the freeze kicks in.
President Bush said he found the allegations credible. Attending a meeting of Pacific Rim leaders in Chile, Bush said he considered the reports a “very serious matter.”
Another area of concern for the Americans is the development of missiles needed to deliver the warheads.
“I have seen some information that would suggest they had been actively working on delivery systems,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week.
Iran dismisses the reports as unfounded and compares them to the erroneous intelligence on weapons development that helped draw the United States into war with Iraq.
“The burden of proof is on the shoulder of the person who makes the claims,” Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Monday in an interview on CNN.
The problem with that explanation is that Iran often is the source of the claims. In August, Iran released photos of a new version of its Shihab missile that had a baby-bottle design, as opposed to the usual cone shape.
The design apparently was drawn from Soviet era ICBM nuclear missiles, said Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, since a nuclear device fits better in a baby-bottle shape.
Why would the Iranians allow the release of those pictures?
“They want people to know,” Clawson said.
With Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein out of the way, flexing muscles sends a message that Iran is now a dominant power in the Middle East. That would allow Iran to continue its disruptive involvement in Lebanon, where Israel says Iran has armed Hezbollah terrorists with 13,000 missiles. Hezbollah and Iran also have emerged among the main financiers of Palestinian terrorist attacks in the West Bank.
The revelations late last week only increased skepticism among some on the 35-member IAEA board, and the United States has expressed its determination to impose stiffer standards, especially since Iran reneged on previous deals.
Europeans also are unnerved that the newer Shihab missiles apparently could put major European cities within range.
On the other hand, China and Russia — which as declared nuclear nations have considerable influence at the IAEA — are averse to sanctions. Russia has a financial stake in Iran’s main nuclear reactor at Bushehr.
Furthermore, Mohammed ElBaradei, the IAEA’s director-general, on Monday called Iran’s enrichment suspension a “step in the right direction,” despite skepticism by Israel and others that any real suspension was underway.
Should Iran clear the IAEA hurdle, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) plan to reintroduce their bipartisan “Iran Freedom Support Act” when Congress reconvenes in January. It would allow the president to sanction countries that do business with the Islamic regime and strengthen support for opposition groups.
That likely would have the strong support of the pro-Israel community in Washington, which believes the suspension agreement with Europe is inadequate.
“Iran is intensely working to marry its nuclear and missile programs so that it can deliver a nuclear weapon at the earliest possible date,” said Andrew Schwartz, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “Nothing in the agreement stops Iran from completing nuclear warhead designs or improving its missiles to enable them to deliver nuclear weapons.”
After this meeting, Bush likely would raise the threat of sanctions when the IAEA board meets again, in about four months.
Israel, meanwhile, is sitting on its hands, not wanting to upend delicate U.S. efforts to build international support. U.S. officials have made clear they do not want Israel to repeat its successful 1981 strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.
“I don’t see how it would do anything but provoke … a conflict between Israel and Iran, and we want to avoid that at all costs, and I think the Israelis recognize that,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press. “It’s one thing to attack a reactor in Iraq 20-some years ago. It’s something entirely different to take on that challenge now.”
Israelis say they are happy to comply, for now. On the record, they say the window for Iran’s nuclearization is two years; off the record, they say the world is looking at 12 months.
“The complacency of the international community drives Israel, pushes Israel to the corner,” Sneh, a retired general, told CNN. “We don’t prepare a pre-emptive strike, but, gradually, along the axis of time, we are pushed to the corner.”