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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Israel and Iran How imminent or real a threat?

Israel and Iran: How imminent or real a threat?

Jan 11th 2007 | JERUSALEM
 From The Economist print edition
Israelis vary in their views of the Iranian menace

"FOR the first time since its independence, Israel is close to facing an
existential threat." Coming from Avi Dichter, the internal security
minister, who fought in the 1973 war when Israel's Arab neighbours
nearly defeated it in a surprise attack, these are surpassing words;
Israeli politicians often paint their country's history as one long
series of existential threats. But the prospect of an Iranian nuclear
bomb, along with the call from its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for
Israel to be "wiped off the map", has them exercised as never before.

Most informed Israelis were sceptical about a report this week in a
British newspaper, the Sunday Times, which cited unnamed Israeli
military sources saying that Israel is training pilots for a tactical
nuclear strike against three Iranian nuclear sites. It could have been
carefully leaked sabre-rattling, but it seems strange, not to say
irresponsible, for a country that still maintains an official policy of
"ambiguity" about whether it even has nuclear weapons to let its
officers spread such rumours. That said, though, its prime minister,
Ehud Olmert, was lambasted for being similarly rash in virtually
acknowledging his country's nuclear capability a few weeks earlier.

In any case, going it alone, as Israel did in 1981 when it hit Iraq's
Osirak reactor, would have little certainty of success against Iran, as
Israeli security officials are quick to stress. Iran may have other
nuclear sites that nobody knows about or that are too well-protected. It
has already built up a stockpile of uranium hexafluoride, the raw
material for enrichment into reactor fuel or bomb-grade material, and is
bound to store it deep underground. Even if its main enrichment plant,
at Natanz, is destroyed, it may restart enrichment out of view
elsewhere—if indeed it is not going on already. Moreover, for an attack
to succeed, it would need to suppress Iran's air defences, and stop Iran
retaliating by destroying some of its missiles and perhaps its naval
facilities. Such a big campaign would need American help, and America is
probably far too busy in Iraq.

Israeli officials think Iran may be downplaying technical problems with
fuel enrichment, to convince the world that it already has all the
required skills. The more time slips by, the lower the chances of
success for any attack. And it is not only Israel's leaders who are
worried. Thanks to their own dire warnings ("It is 1938, and Iran is
Germany," is the favourite line of the right-wing opposition Likud's
Binyamin Netanyahu), a poll last month in Maariv, an Israeli newspaper,
found that two-thirds of Israeli Jews think Iran would use a nuclear
bomb to destroy Israel.

Still, a recent conference run by the Truman Institute at Jerusalem's
Hebrew University showed that Israeli experts paint a subtler picture.
One thing on which they seemed to agree is that an Iranian bomb is a
danger—but will not be used soon. Top researchers such as Eldad Pardo of
the Truman Institute and Ephraim Kam, a former military-intelligence
colonel, concur that Iran's first area of concern is the Gulf region
around it, not Israel. Iran sees its environs as "very dangerous", says
Mr Kam: Iraq exploding on one side, Afghan drug runners, who have killed
3,000 Iranian police and troops in recent years, infiltrating the border
on the other, and the Americans stomping around in both. For the moment,
he thinks, Iran's desire for nuclear weapons is defensive, not
offensive—but that might change once it has them.

But there are debates about just what "defensive" means to Iran. The
fact that America took out Iran's two biggest local enemies, Saddam
Hussein and the Taliban, has emboldened its regime's pursuit of what Mr
Pardo calls a "new religion"—neither truly Shia nor Sunni, but a
syncretic, millenarian cult. Its followers, including Mr Ahmadinejad,
believe in the imminent return of the Mahdi (the Shias' "hidden" imam,
who vanished more than a thousand years ago), worship high technology
(ie, nuclear weapons) and want Iran to become the leader of a
pan-Islamic regime in the region—before tussling with the Western world,
including Israel.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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