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Israel's Red Flag on Iran

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 13, 2003 10:07 am    Post subject: Israel's Red Flag on Iran Reply with quote

Israel's Red Flag on Iran

August 13, 2003
The Washington Post
Jim Hoagland

A grim warning from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to President Bush that Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than U.S. intelligence believes has triggered concern here that Israel is seriously considering a preemptive strike against Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor.

Sharon dramatized his forecast by bringing Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, a three-star army officer who serves as his military secretary, to a meeting with Bush in the Oval Office two weeks ago, U.S. and Israeli sources tell me. Galant showered a worried-looking Bush with photographs and charts from a thick dossier on Iran's covert program.

So much for the news. Now the analysis: Oy. And vey.

Sharon's description of the unacceptable risks of Iran's being able to launch "a nuclear holocaust" comes just as the Bush administration is making headway in constructing a diplomatic containment strategy for the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea. Unilateral Israeli action against Iran would destroy this strategy and gravely complicate Bush's reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

Bush's frequently warring senior policymakers have reached a consensus (now there's news) in recent weeks that the United States has no attractive military options in Iran or North Korea. Instead, Washington must work with its allies to impede these rogue efforts to create nuclear arsenals. Europe and Russia have responded by increasingly distancing themselves from Iran and by joining the Bush team in pressuring North Korea into multilateral talks.

Knee-jerk Bush critics will no doubt poke fun or scorn at these post-Iraq multilateralist efforts. As someone almost said once, let them eat yellowcake. An improving climate in transatlantic relations as the bitterness over Iraq recedes makes this strategy the best bet for the next six months, and probably beyond. U.S. officials believe they can use that time to put new obstacles in the way of the Iranian and North Korean programs.

But Sharon's presentation to Bush challenges the assumptions and viability of the emerging U.S. nonproliferation strategy on Iran. U.S. intelligence estimates that put Iran's covert nuclear weapons drive about four years short of being able to turn plutonium into a workable nuclear warhead overstate the time factor by at least 100 percent, Sharon argued. One to two years is his projected timeline.

To be sure, Sharon would face formidable logistical and political problems in trying to update Israel's successful preemptive 1981 strike against Iraq's Osirak reactor. His Oval Office briefing may have been designed to pressure Bush to move more forcefully on Iran rather than to advertise an impending Israeli action.

Israeli leaders have consistently warned Americans for two decades that Iran's Islamic regime is a mortal enemy for the Jewish state and must not be underestimated. Sharon's account, while apparently more urgent and dramatic than past presentations, fits a pattern of Israel "treating a nuclear-arming Iran as an immediate existential threat," says one U.S. official, while Washington does not.

But it is Israel's experience with Osirak that makes Sharon's alarming words impossible to ignore. The trigger for that strike was intelligence that the Iraqi reactor was about to be loaded with nuclear fuel. Hitting it after the loading would have risked spreading radioactive contamination across a wide area in the Middle East. And after the 1991 Gulf War it was discovered that outside assessments -- including Israel's -- underestimated how close Saddam Hussein had been to getting the bomb.

Russian delivery of fuel to the Bushehr reactor that it will complete for Iran later this year could be taken by the Israelis as a similar point of no return. The Iranians also have a covert uranium mining and enrichment effort underway that could be tied into the Bushehr reactor, international inspectors have reported.

"The enrichment effort is the bigger unknown for us," says a U.S. official. "But our estimate is that Iran does not now have a completely indigenous nuclear capability. Efforts to prevent it from reaching that point of no return are worth pursuing. The longer you can keep Russia from delivering the fuel, the better off you are."

A year-long effort led by Undersecretary of State John Bolton to persuade Russia and other countries to be more wary of Iran seems to be making inch-by-inch progress. Moscow has joined in summit-level statements critical of Iran, and Germany and France recently blocked shipment of aluminum tubes useful to Iran's enrichment program. Bolton will seek new action from the International Atomic Energy Agency at a Sept. 8 meeting.

Hope that he gets it. Whatever his purpose, Sharon has usefully sketched one awful alternative to the Bush administration's making multilateralism work for it.

[url]http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A52278-2003Aug12.html [/url]
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