The Jerusalem Post - November 25, 2004


by Arieh O'Sullivan

Iranian rocket scientist Col. Ali Mahmud Mimand fell into semi-consciousness at his desk. It appeared to be a heart attack. As the brain behind Iran's efforts to produce the Shihab-3 missile capable of reaching Israel, his anxious subordinates rushed him to a hospital. He died en route. It was July 2001 and rumors quickly spread throughout Teheran that Mimand had been assassinated by either Israeli or US agents.

His family, however, said the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had arrested him on suspicions he was spying for the Americans, tortured him nearly to death and then dumped his body in his office.

Whatever the truth, the incident shows that there are numerous events and stumbling blocks confounding Iran's efforts to get nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching Israel.

International pressure, internal strife and technical challenges are all obstacles the ruling theocracy has faced in its 19-year effort to get nukes.

In Israel, opinions are divided.

Senior officials in the government and military agreed to speak candidly about Iran, but only on condition they not be named. The IDF assessment is that the Iranians have not reached the point of no return and that with the right pressure they can still be prevented from getting the bomb. But some in the defense establishment believe it is deterministic and that sooner or later Iran will get the bomb. Yet they say this doesn't mean there is nothing to be done or that a showdown won't take place beforehand.

Officially, Israel does not see Iran as an enemy, but rather as an existential threat. With no common border, Iran's military does not pose a serious conventional threat. The extremist and hostile mullahs have opted for going straight to a plan to annihilate the Jewish state. To do this they are developing rockets that can hit the country one day with nuclear warheads, not to mention fomenting hatred of the "Zionist regime" in the Arab world as they try to export their Islamic revolution.

Iran is the only country that openly calls for wiping the Jewish state "off the face of the earth." It tries to undermine and indeed halt all peace efforts between Israel and our Arab neighbors through terrorist proxies like Hizbullah in Lebanon and an increasing number of Palestinian terror groups.

"They want the bomb and will do everything they can to get the bomb," says one senior Israeli security source. "They are not crazy, but they do have an irrational streak and are very calculated. They do not take any spontaneous actions or actions out of context. History has shown that rogue nations tend to use diplomacy as a cover while they complete their work," he says.

BACK IN 1992, IDF intelligence put on the agenda the Iranian nuclear efforts as a potential existential threat. A few years later, reports started to surface of an Iranian missile project to make a rocket capable of reaching Israel. At the time, experts differed on the Iranian capabilities, but the basic assumption was that it was to be an extended process and in any case, was for self defense.

But gradually this thinking changed and in 1996 the IDF began to focus most of its long-range planning and armament against Iran. The Mossad, too, began to see as its main task the prevention of weapons of mass destruction reaching Israel's enemies and terrorist groups. Insiders say that today more than 40 percent of the Mossad's activities concern Iran.

Israel heavily invested in spy satellites, improving the Arrow-2 anti-missile system and began purchasing sophisticated and long-range aircraft (F-15I and F-16I) the defense establishment loudly and repeatedly boasted were capable of reaching Iran. In reality, these expensive moves were just shoring up doomsday scenarios. The real war was not likely to be a repeat of the 1981 IAF raid on the Iraqi Osirak reactor, a bold move taken singlehandedly by Israel. But Israel had to portray an image that it could if it wanted to.

It's clear that Israel can't subjugate Iran, a nation of 70 million, nor could it likely totally destroy all of its nuclear sites, which the Iranians have spread out to prevent a repeat of Osirak.

With Iran, it has been a race against time. The strategy chosen was to enlist the world against Iranian efforts to produce nuclear weapons. The goal is if not to stop it, then at least slow it down enough so that if and when they do go nuclear, the radical ayatollahs will have been toppled and the mullahs won't be the ones with their fingers on the trigger.

Israeli diplomatic pressure has only proven to be partially successful, as witnessed by Iran's recent announcement that it was suspending, temporarily, its uranium enrichment program in return for incentives in trade and energy from Europe (and to avoid UN sanctions).

The United States has been the leader in the effort to prevent Iran from even "peaceful" nuclear ambitions because any country capable of producing nuclear energy is potentially capable of producing enriched uranium for nukes.

AT LEAST 30 nations could make nuclear weapons unassisted today if they chose to, and another 60 or so could do so with some outside help. Nine have the bomb, if you include Russia, the US, France, Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) states that all non-nuclear states would stop attempts to get the bomb and those with the bomb would pursue the elimination of nukes. South Africa was the first and only country to actually give up its nukes voluntarily, other than post-Soviet Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

Iran signed the NPT in 1970 and its leaders have denied they have any intention of developing the bomb. They have insisted, however, that it is their right to enrich uranium to use for nuclear energy, which is what they have been doing with the help of China and Russia.

As the world's fourth largest oil-producing country and sitting on 11% of the earth's known oil reserves, Iran justifies its need for nuclear energy by saying it wants to sell all of its oil while basing its own, relatively modest, energy consumption on nuclear power.

Western and Israeli analysts find several motives for a bomb.

"Iran wants to be among the countries that count. It is a prestigious endeavor for its citizens to belong to that exclusive club," says a Western diplomat. "They also want to bring the bomb to the Arab world."

It is also seen as an insurance package against Western intervention because, with all due respect to faith and fanaticism, they are nothing without these weapons.

"The Iranians have a paranoia about their regime being toppled," says Prof. Meir Litvak of the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. "The Iranians see the nuclear weapons as a security bond against this. They look at the international arena and see how the US brought down Saddam's regime because he didn't have nuclear weapons and they see how the Americans are using kid gloves against North Korea, which has violated all agreements it has signed, because it has nuclear weapons," Litvak says. "Iran wants international immunity."

But it has been a nerve-wracking game of brinkmanship and deception for years. Teheran's efforts have been designed to gain time. They are excellent at playing the West for apparent concessions. Israeli intelligence has confirmed that Iran is actually running a double nuclear program, one that is open to inspections and access by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the other a secret one run by the military to make nukes.

Senior military sources told the Post that in the worst-case scenario, Iran could produce a nuclear bomb within two years. Alireza Jafarzadeh, a former spokesman for Iran's exiled opposition National Council of Resistance, has reportedly said "between 350 and 400 nuclear physicists" are involved in the weapons program.

IN THE late summer, speculation ran high that the two countries were on a collision course and that Israel was about to take military action.

"If the state decides that a military solution is required then the military has to give a solution," IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Elyezer Shkedy told the Post in September. "For obvious reasons, it's clear we aren't going to speak of specifics."

Iran responded vehemently, warning it would unleash horrific retaliation.

"We will have no choice but to engage in a wide-scale act of vengeance. Iran possesses diverse methods on the regional behavior level and Iran's strategy against those threats is based on asymmetrical warfare," said Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani.

The commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Gen. Mohammad-Baqer Zolqadr said with bravado that Israel's threats were only "propaganda."

"Given the internal crises in the Zionist regime and its military, security and geographical vulnerability, Israel is not capable of attacking Iran," he was quoted as saying.

Iran has tested and fielded Shihab-3 missiles with a range of 1,200 kilometers capable of reaching Israel. Reports from the United States last weekend said that Iran is already completing complicated plans to arm them with nuclear warheads. IDF sources said the Iranian test launches of the Shihab-3 rockets conducted in August and October were part of a program to extend their range. The source said that the tests were "not necessarily successful."

Iran has been trying to develop a Shihab-4 with a range of 2,000 kilometers and Shihab-5 with a 3,000- to 4,000-kilometer range. These would put Europe and Asia in its reach.

Obviously, what ends up being done with all this military-technological development depends on social and political processes.

THE ISLAMIC revolution in Iran flourished because frustrated students and intellectuals thrived in the protected grounds of the mosques and religious clubs, ultimately generating revolutionary ideas in religious garb that sparked the revolt against the Shah and burned ties with Israel.

Since then, however, the revolutionary fervor has given way to political repression. Much like the non-revolutionary Middle East, the mullahs have spent billions on the distribution of political patronage. And like most other Muslim nations, Iran is also haunted by demographics, with two-in-every three Iranians under 30 and nearly one-in-three jobless, according to Western estimates. It is no secret that many of those disenfranchised by this social malaise are hungry for political and economic change.

"They are not cut off. There are four million Iranian exiles abroad and they see how they have succeeded and ask, 'Why not me?'" says one Iranian observer. "They want the good life, too."

Under the Shah, Iran's economy was at one point the size of Spain's. But 25 years of theocracy have seen Iran's per-capita income shrink to a third of what it was before the revolution.

When only a couple of years ago reform seemed to be an unstoppable force rolling downhill, it ran head-long into puritanical Islam and the hardliners beat back their challenges viciously, rigging elections and ensuring their theocracy would stay intact. The majority of the people chose to back off. According to Iranian observers, only some 11% of the public even bothered to participate in the most recent elections.

When Iranian President Muhammad Khatami was swept into power in 1997, there were high hopes he would lead a reform and usher in a moderate regime. But as he prepares to leave office this May, it is clear that his was a promise never delivered, and that the hardliners have politically castrated him.

For their part, the mullahs are focused on safeguarding their rule; their one indulgence is Israel.

"Iran doesn't care about a Palestinian state. It wants the destruction of Israel," says Litvak. "Iran sees itself as the last ideological standard bearer in the conflict against Israel. This is the last remaining ideological banner that the Iranian regime has left. It has furled away all the other banners."

Iran can allow itself to keep this banner because it doesn't pay any price for it - not economically, not politically and not militarily. It is comfortable to keep this fig leaf hiding its other failures, says Litvak. "They see Zionism as an imperialistic tool to oppress the Islamic world. It is the fire that keeps alight the revolution that is dimming in so many places."

ACCORDING TO Israeli security sources, Iran through its proxy Hizbullah in Lebanon, is becoming more and more involved in radicalizing Palestinians against peace moves. Iran has financed and orchestrated a number of terrorist cells and gives direct orders to the Islamic Jihad. It has also moved to recruit Israeli Arabs to their ranks.

That said, Palestinians close to Fatah fighters have admitted to journalists they have taken the money, but have ignored the Iranian ideology.

Iran is also moving into the vacuum left by the deep decimation Israel inflicted on Hamas over the past four years of conflict. It was Iran that supplied the weapons on the Karine-A and other vessels known to have been intercepted by the Navy. Shin Bet sources say Iran is also providing the arms shipments being smuggled into the Gaza Strip from Sinai. The assessment in the IDF is that the present post-Arafat scenario in the territories could spark even greater Iranian attempts to prevent the development of a peace process.

"A dialogue with Israel is anathema to the Iranians and they will take many measures to stop it," says a senior IDF officer, adding that should Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas make positive moves to renew peace talks, there could be a risk that the Iranians would move to "eliminate" him.

IN LEBANON, Iran's military build-up is impressive. Hizbullah's estimated 13,000 rockets pointed at Israel, some capable of reaching as far as Haifa and Afula, add up to a strategic threat that irks the defense establishment.

And while the US declared Iran part of the "axis of evil," the Bush administration went after the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq instead.

Iran watched the Iraqi insurgency's attacks on US and British troops and gained confidence. Teheran was also buoyed by the past year's dramatic rise in oil prices, which allowed it to set aside $20 billion in surplus income from energy exports.

LAST SUMMER Iran revealed the existence of its nuclear sites and invited the IAEA to inspect them. It agreed with the Europeans to suspend uranium enrichment, but by September reneged on it, saying Europe wasn't keeping its part of the deal. Like a bad case of d j vu, the same scenario is repeating itself. In Israel, the international efforts are starting to be seen as a farce, as Iran clandestinely moves closer to getting the bomb. One senior official intimately involved in the matter admitted that Iran's maneuvering and the West's "spinelessness" was a source of great frustration.

"We are swallowing bile," he says. "The Russians are continuing to help them because the money is good and they don't really believe this present (mullah) government will be around when the nuclear program will be in place."

In Israel the views are divided.

National Security Adviser Giora Eiland has said that Iran is reaching the point of no return. IDF intelligence believes this won't happen for another six months.

Ephraim Kam, author of From Terror to Nuclear Bombs: The Significance of the Iranian Threat, and deputy head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, echoes IDF intelligence when he says he does not believe the path to the Iranian bomb is deterministic. He believes that with the right pressure they will be slowed down and even halted.

"The fact that the Iranians twice caved in shows that international pressure has impact," he says. "These decisions are made in light of the threat of sanctions and military options. If the delay is greater than months, it can set them back by years. My hope is that in the future a more moderate regime will arise."

Others in the defense establishment believe it is already too late. According to them, Israel's best policy now would be to seek the mullahs' replacement with a more pragmatic government.

WHAT WILL happen once Teheran acquires nuclear weapons? Is it possible to reach a strategic balance with a nuclearized Iran? Most analysts reject this, saying such an arms race would be joined by others like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, a nuclear Iran could serve as an umbrella for terrorists or other enemies of Israel and could be used to blackmail its own neighbors.

Still, conventional wisdom and history has shown that once a nation gets the bomb its leaders calm down. Will Iran be the exception?

"The world has 60 years of historical experience with nukes. To my mind, so far, without any exception, nukes have always caused a country to calm down. And that included Stalin, Mao and Nixon," says Prof. Martin van Creveld of the Hebrew University, who is often counted among the world's leading military historians. "Once you have the absolute weapon, war ceases to be fun. It becomes suicidal." "The Iranian government is very opaque. Not many people can claim to understand how it really works. But I would say the same would happen to them."

The military establishment in Israel refuses to even countenance this possibility.

"We can't take that sort of risk," says one senior officer.

Is it possible to even hope to have a relationship with the Islamic state that once sold us our oil in return for our weapons?

Some believe the relationship that flourished between the two nations before the Khomeini Revolution can be renewed. In the long run, the Islamic regime can't last indefinitely, they say.

"You can't keep a society under this kind of control forever. There is the street and when they are ready they will rise," says a senior official who once had close ties with Iran. "There is a process. Their interests are closer to us than to the Arab world. There will be a mutual approach. I believe the Islamic regime won't completely fall, but will be replaced by a more moderate one. How much and when - I can't say."

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