Israel turns up the heat on Iran

Worried about a possible thaw between Washington and Iran, Sharon warns that the Islamic regime poses an urgent threat to Israel.

Published January 28, 2002 8:27PM (EST)

Last Sunday afternoon, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with the leaders of AIPAC, Washington's pro-Israel lobby. Sharon told his visitors that Israel would not interfere with American decisions on Iran, but that it was important to turn the attention of the Bush administration toward Iran. Sharon said that recent developments, including Israel's capture of a ship loaded with Iranian arms apparently destined for the Palestinian Authority, had made "dealing with the Iranian threat ... more urgent." AIPAC doesn't need much encouragement to act against Iran, though. It played a key role in the passage of the controversial 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which unilaterally imposes penalties on foreign companies that do more than $40 million in energy-related business with Iran, and successfully lobbied Congress last summer to extend the act by five more years, despite the administration's original reluctance.

Israeli leaders have recently begun an aggressive public campaign -- mostly aimed at Washington -- against Iran and the threat it poses to Israel. The military chief of staff, Gen. Shaul Mofaz, came to Washington this month to raise the issue with top administration officials. Shimon Peres, the foreign minister, ordered his ministry to prepare and distribute a "black book" that would expose Tehran's threats and deeds against Israel to the world community. Peres overruled his office professionals, who had recommended a quiet diplomatic campaign rather than an open one.

Israeli officials cite two reasons for their new anti-Iran campaign. One is the Jan. 3 capture of the Karine A, a ship loaded with Iranian arms en route to Gaza. The ship incident revealed a freshly created link between the ayatollahs of Tehran and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, with the help of Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian militia in Lebanon. "This dangerous triangle creates a new strategic threat to the whole region," Sharon told the AIPAC leaders. When Israel and the Palestinians are battling each other in a prolonged violent conflict, Iran's supply of long-range rockets and mortars to the Palestinian side is seen as a direct intervention, threatening Israeli population centers with heavy weapons.

The other red flag was a speech made last month by Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's former president and an important figure in the regime. Speaking on "Jerusalem day," Rafsanjani said: "The day is approaching in which the Islamic world will possess atomic weapons ... a single atomic bomb has the power to completely destroy Israel, while an Israeli counterstrike will only cause partial damage to the Islamic world." In Jerusalem, these words were interpreted as a direct threat to destroy Israel with nuclear arms. Coming from an openly hostile country that is striving to obtain nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, Rafsanjani's remarks convinced Israeli leaders that the Iranians are indeed determined to carry out their ideological commitment to eliminate the Jewish state and wipe it out of the Middle East map. Before the speech, Israelis saw the Iranian bomb mainly in a strategic context, as the end of Israel's nuclear monopoly in the region. "Now we take the option of a nuclear attack more seriously," an intelligence official told me.

The main targets of the Israeli diplomatic and propaganda effort are Western capitals, and most importantly Washington. Israel fears a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, and is trying to influence the Bush administration to put Tehran on the target list for the next stage of its anti-terror campaign. "The governments in the United States and Europe know from their own sources that Iran pushes terror, but I fear that their actual policy of appeasing the ayatollahs and ignoring their actions will continue," says Cabinet Minister Ephraim Sneh, who has been warning about Iran for years. Sneh hopes that the ship incident, with its Iranian linkage, would prevent American and British warming up to Tehran.

Israeli officials don't expect America to launch a full-scale war against Iran, and doubt the usefulness of such a move. In a recent meeting of security officials in Tel Aviv, one intelligence agency speculated that the United States might hit Iranian targets, such as nuclear facilities, in preemptive pinpoint strikes. (It's doubtful that such an operation would be feasible, since there is no identifiable center of nuclear development in Iran.) But Sharon opposes any use of American forces to fight Israel's wars, believing that it would be against the country's best interests.

Israel's preferred option is stronger American pressure on Tehran to change its behavior and stop its support for terrorist groups and its nuclear program. And even if Tehran does not change its behavior, according to this strategy, Israel would benefit from a state of heightened tension between the U.S. and Iran: Israel and the United States would be bound together against a common enemy, and possible military action would be more politically palatable.

Nine years ago, Israel applauded the Clinton administration policy of "dual containment" of both Iraq and Iran. When George W. Bush took office last year, review of the policy was long overdue, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq was seen as the clearer danger. Policymakers in Washington are still debating how to treat Iran. The oil business and other industrial interests are pushing to end the sanctions and grab a share of the Iranian economy, thus strengthening Tehran as a stabilizing force against Baghdad. Others, pointing out that Iran is a complex nation in a state of flux, argue that détente would strengthen the hand of the reformers and weaken the hard-line mullahs. The main obstacles, as far as Washington is concerned, are mostly Israel-related: Iran's support for terrorist groups in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, its opposition to the Middle East peace process and its nuclear ambitions.

"We and the Americans have different priorities," Israeli Cabinet Minister Nathan Sharansky told me last week. "For us, Iran comes first and then Iraq. The Americans see Iraq, then a long pause, and only then Iran." General Mofaz asked his interlocutors in Washington, like National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, to "consider the Iranian threat" before any decisions are taken on future relations with Tehran. Israeli intelligence officials estimate that Iran has not been targeted for "Phase 2" of the American war on terrorism, but the efforts to ease tensions and improve Washington-Tehran ties have been futile so far.

The high echelons of the Israeli government are almost unanimous in their description of the Iranian menace. Almost all agree with the assessment of AMAN, the military intelligence agency that is responsible for national estimates. "Iran has been committed for years to Israel's destruction, and is striving systematically to achieve this goal, through different channels and efforts. There are many statements of Iranian leaders to that effect, and we find no reason to doubt them," a senior intelligence official told me earlier this week. Uri Lubrani, currently an advisor to the defense minister, represents the hard-liners. He calls for toppling the Islamic regime, and wants the United States to assist the opposition. One of his novel ideas is to create a special fund to pay Iranian oil workers: They would be urged to strike, thus delivering the ultimate economic blow to the ayatollahs. (Iran has oil revenues of $20 billion a year.) Having served as an ambassador to pre-revolutionary Iran in the late 1970s, Lubrani anticipated the collapse of the Shah. Next month, Lubrani will accompany his minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, to meet administration officials in Washington.

A lone dissenting voice in the Israeli establishment belongs to Ephraim Halevy, head of the Mossad, the foreign intelligence service. Last month, Halevy used a rare public appearance to talk about "signals of reconciliation" from Tehran. He acknowledged that, "These are single notes, which are not adding up to a melody, while the counternoises are stronger and more substantial," but added: "An intelligence official is not only allowed to think. He is entitled to hope. We should prepare for the worst, but at the same time act to create opportunities for the best." In private talks with American officials, Halevy was even more explicit, saying that Iranian-American rapprochement is in Israel's interest.

Dealing with Iran presents Israeli leaders with a major problem. They simply don't know what is happening on the other side. Hard intelligence on Iran is hard to obtain both from primary sources and through friendly foreign services. According to Israeli officials in the know, most of the information they see is purely technical, dealing with weapons systems capabilities and similar matters. The inner workings of the regime remain obscure. Therefore, to depict Iranian intentions, Israeli intelligence has to rely heavily upon interpreting public statements, without always knowing the context in which they were said.

This lack of knowledge brings up two dilemmas: how to understand the domestic power struggles between Iranian moderates and hard-liners, and whether Iran truly sees Israel as its regional adversary and the main target for its missiles and future nukes. On the surface, there is no real question. Moderate President Mohammad Khatami is committed to the same anti-Israel policies as his conservative rival, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However they might differ on the need for domestic reforms, there is no real debate on Israel, and in any case, the conservatives hold the keys to Iran's foreign policy and defense establishment. "We see no difference between the two camps," a Sharon aide told me recently. When Khatami told the New York Times last November that Iran would eventually accept any solution agreed to by the Palestinians, his words were not taken seriously in Jerusalem. Israeli officials see the Iranian president as a figurehead, a Western-oriented veil for the real power brokers in Tehran. They recall the "Khatami plan" for resolving the Palestine issue: a repatriation of all the Palestinian refugees, and then holding free elections among all the inhabitants of Palestine before the creation of Israel in 1948, not counting Jewish immigrants ever since. This proposal means the elimination of Israel by gentle means, rather than by force.

Israeli military intelligence assessments say that the conservatives in Iran have blocked pressures for reform so far, but predict a "potential for change" in Iran in five or six years. The positive signs, weak as they may appear, come from the margins of the reformist group. While there is no official contact between the two countries, Israelis and Iranians have met several times in recent years at academic conferences, hosted by Western think tanks aiming for security and stability in the Middle East. In these meetings the Israeli participants, among them former government and military officials, heard from their Iranian counterparts that there is no reason for fear. We are not really interested in Israel beyond the usual rhetoric about the Arab-Israeli conflict, said the Iranians, and our main focus today is our domestic problems and the neighboring countries. Some Mossad officials, as well as American intelligence officials, agree that Iran's strategic focus is not on Israel, and its quest for nuclear weapons has many other reasons, like Iraq, Pakistan and influence in the Gulf. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak shared this view, and once said that when the Iranians look eastward, they see a string of nuclear powers from their border to the Pacific.

Israeli intelligence warns of an Iranian "initial nuclear capability" between 2005 and 2007. A CIA report, published earlier this month, predicts an Iranian bomb by the end of the decade. Israel and the United States agree about the danger of Iran's nuclear ambitions, and both governments are coordinating their efforts to push Russia, Tehran's main nuclear supplier, to curb the "leakage" of dangerous technology. Recent intelligence reports have indicated that the Russian government has started to limit the flow of nuclear technology to Iran.

On Jan. 17, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, one of the toughest administration hawks, visited Israel to discuss these matters. Bolton's visit encouraged his Israeli hosts. The American official told them that President Bush is deeply concerned about Iran's support for terrorism and its drive to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

To a large extent, Iran and Israel see a mirror image of each other. Israeli statements about the long arm of its air force, combined with Israel's known nuclear and missile capabilities and its military cooperation with Turkey, are seen in Tehran as direct threats to its security. In this zero-sum game, one country's strategic gain is seen as the other's immediate loss. Hence Iran's support for Arafat's intifada, which is strengthening its position in the Muslim world.

There is one striking difference, however, between the two sides. Both use the perception of an external threat for diametrically opposed domestic agendas. In Iran, the conservatives are using their anti-Israel rhetoric to stake their claim as the last stalwart pillars of the Islamic revolution, unchanged by domestic reforms and opening to the West. But in Israel, it is the dovish Peres who is putting the blame for terrorism on Iran and its proxies, in order to take some pressure off Arafat, Peres' longtime partner in peace negotiations and the man with whom he shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

Peres has used the Iranian threat for political reasons before. When Palestinian terrorists killed dozens of Israelis on the eve of elections in 1996, Peres, then the Prime Minister, claimed (with help from the military intelligence) that Iran, which has long supported Hamas and Islamic Jihad, initiated the attacks in order to remove him from power and thus derail the Oslo peace process. In fact, there is evidence that Iran did encourage the attacks, but the public didn't buy the idea. The rival right-wing candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused the Palestinians and won the election.

Sharon plays the Iranian card as well as Peres, but for opposite ends. The prime minister doesn't need the ayatollahs for domestic support, but to gain American backing for his anti-Arafat policy. Sharon sent his intelligence officials and chief of staff to Washington, to present the administration with evidence of Arafat's "deal with the Iranian devil" on the arms ship. The plot succeeded: The Iranian connection put the Palestinian leader among the bad guys of the block. On Friday, President Bush said, "Ordering up weapons that were intercepted on a boat headed for that part of the world is not part of fighting terror. That's enhancing terror." The administration was considering a range of sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, including severing relations. That step was thought to be unlikely, but whatever credibility Arafat still had with Washington had clearly suffered a major blow. Sharon and Bush are certain to discuss Arafat's fate, and how to deal with Iran, when they meet at the White House on Feb. 7.

By Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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