Iran, with massive aid from Russia, is on the verge of completing its development of ballistic missiles that can strike any part of Israel, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said. But the US and Israel disagree over how to pressure Russia to immediately stop aid to Teheran before the Islamic republic achieves the ability to independently manufacture such missiles. The Clinton administration wants to concentrate on quiet diplomatic efforts, while Israel is lobbying Congress to cut off US aid to Moscow.
In an interview with "The Jerusalem Post," Mordechai said the US and Israel have received intelligence information over the past few months that have led both countries to conclude that Teheran has progressed faster than previously thought in both its medium-range ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. The most impressive progress was in Iran's missile program.
"Iran is on the verge of achieving capability of producing long-range missiles that have strategic dangers to Israel, as well as to US interests in the region," he said. Mordechai said that, at Iran's current pace of development, Teheran will be able to manufacture missiles that can hit Israel, the Gulf states, Asia, and parts of Europe by 1999. He said Iran also wants to increase its chemical weapons and produce biological and nuclear weapons.
Western intelligence officials say Iran has embarked on three missile programs. One has a range of 1,500 kilometers, which can hit Israel, the Gulf states and Asia. Another has a range of 3,000 km, which can hit much of Western Europe. A third is a program to develop a missile of 5,500 km., believed to be largely aimed at striking US targets in the Pacific. Mordechai said US intelligence officials now have a more alarming assessment than that of their Israeli colleagues of how close Iran is to achieving its goal.
The new intelligence, Mordechai said, shows that Russia has violated months of pledges to stop aid to Iran's missile and non-conventional weapons programs. "We tried all ways, through the Americans, also directly to the Russians," Mordechai said. "There were [Russian] people, including ministers, who promised them that they will stop [sending] technology and capability to Iran. They promised that to the president of the US, [to US Vice President] Al Gore, the prime minister [Binyamin Netanyahu] and others who visited Russia.
"We were surprised to learn that the opposite took place: that Russia and Russian companies have accelerated the process; that Iran can achieve independent capability in these areas as fast as possible so they won't be under pressure." Mordechai said Israel has concluded that it must increase diplomatic efforts to stop the Iranian effort. As a result, officials have lobbied their colleagues in Europe, Russia, and the US to stop the transfer of technology to the Islamic republic.
But the Clinton administration opposes the use of US economic aid as a lever to stop Russian aid programs to Teheran. Mordechai acknowledged that US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is opposed to a cutoff of American aid to Russia. "We believe that we need additional measures to impress on the Russians, for them to understand that it will hurt their economic interests and other interests as well," Mordechai said.
Russia received $95 million in US economic aid in 1997. The Clinton administration is asking Congress for $225 million for 1998. The US House Appropriations Committee, however, has pressed for a $12.3 billion foreign operations bill for 1998 that ends all aid to Russia unless Clinton specifies that Moscow is not aiding Iran's missile and nuclear weapons programs. On September 18, Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman, at a luncheon attended by dozens of members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, called on the White House to halt aid to Russia.
For its part, Russia continues to deny that it is helping Iran's ballistic missile program and says its aid to Teheran is limited to building a civilian nuclear reactor. "If there is any information we will investigate," Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia's ambassador to Israel, told Israel Radio's Arabic Service. "It is absolutely not true that Russia is helping Iran in ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. This is newspaper talk."