- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

On June 7, 1981, Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers took off from Etzion Air Base in the Sinai, flew at low altitude across the Iraqi border and zeroed in on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor. One minute and 20 seconds after the first bomb struck, the reactor lay in ruins. All aircraft returned safely.

Today, 23 years later, there is a growing view in Washington and Tel Aviv that a similar pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities may be the only way to prevent the fundamentalist mullahs from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

The Iranian threat to Israel, and to Middle Eastern stability, is serious and growing. Ten months of intensive diplomacy by Britain, France and Germany has failed to defuse the crisis.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Israel has considered Iran its No. 1 enemy. On July 21, Israel’s intelligence agencies submitted a joint report to the Cabinet that Iran could have a nuclear weapon by 2007. And Iran has made clear its main enemies are the “Zionist state” and its U.S. ally.

Every country that recently developed nuclear weapons has done so by generating highly enriched uranium or plutonium through the fuel cycle used for nuclear power. Tehran’s claim it only aims to produce electric power is ridiculous. Iran sits on huge reserves of oil, is the second-largest Middle East petroleum exporter after Saudi Arabia, and has the second-largest natural gas reserves in the world after Russia.

The British, French and Germans brokered a deal with Iran last October under which Tehran would cooperate with international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and suspend enrichment of uranium. In exchange, the U.N. Security Council would not take action against Iran.

The IAEA put seals on the centrifuges used to enrich uranium, but now Iran has directly challenged the IAEA and the European nations by removing the seals, and restarting production of new centrifuges. Once enriched, uranium can be used either to produce electric power or make nuclear bombs.

Iran’s centrifuges are believed capable of making 20 to 25 nuclear weapons a year. Plutonium, a byproduct of the nuclear reactor, also can be used to make bombs. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, recently told Congress that in a few years the Bushehr nuclear power plant Russia is building for Iran could produce enough plutonium for more than 80 nuclear weapons. Mr. Bolton also said that, if re-elected, President Bush would make Iran a priority.

India, Pakistan and North Korea have recently developed nuclear weapons, and Iran appears to be next. Israeli intelligence has long been warning Iran intends to produce a bomb, Washington has been calling for U.N. sanctions on Iran, and now even the wishful-thinking Europeans believe Iran is determined to produce nuclear weapons.

The best way to deliver such weapons is by a hard-to-stop ballistic missile, and Iran has an aggressive missile development program. Iran already operates the Shahab-3 missile that can carry a one-ton warhead more than 800 miles, putting Israel and much of the Middle East at risk. The Shahab-3 is a version of North Korea’s Nodong missile and was developed from North Korean technology. The U.S. is helping Israel upgrade and test its Arrow missile interceptor, designed to stop slower and shorter-range Scuds, to give it some capability against the much faster Shahab-3.

Last December, Iranian officials denied earlier reports they were developing a longer-range Shahab-4. But Defense Minister Ali Chamkhani subsequently said Iran is upgrading the Shahab-3, and plans to launch its own satellite within 18 months. This is the same cover — calling a missile a satellite launcher — used by North Korea to explain its Taepodong-2 missile with intercontinental range.

Washington wants U.N. sanctions on Iran, but the Europeans are reluctant. And Russia and China, which have vetoes, are suppliers to Iran’s nuclear program.

As the danger and Iran’s defiance grows, U.S. and Israeli officials have begun talking about a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, calling Iran the greatest danger to Israel’s existence, has said, “Israel will not allow Iran to be equipped with a nuclear weapon.”

This time, a strike by Israel’s F-15s is likely to be much broader than the attack on a single plant at Osirak, Iraq. A strike probably would hit the nuclear plant at Bushehr, the centrifuges at Natanz, a reactor being built at Arak and possibly other targets. A pre-emptive strike can be avoided, at least temporarily, if the U.N. agrees to apply meaningful sanctions. If not, Iran may become the second member of the Axis of Evil to learn the folly of its arrogance.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times and is based in San Diego.

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