Sunday, July 4, 2004

As the Bush administration concludes it cannot risk Iranian retaliation against a fragile Iraq under U.S. occupation, Israel is dusting off contingency plans to take out Iran’s nuclear installations.

On June 24, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to former President George H.W. Bush (41), asked the key question: “Are we serious in our efforts to prevent [Iranian] nuclear proliferation, or will we watch the world descend into a maelstrom where weapons-grade nuclear material is plentiful, and unimaginable destructive capability is available to any country or group with a grudge against society?”

It did not require an overwhelming effort of imagination for Israel’s national security establishment to conclude the Jewish state would be the first threatened by Iranian nukes.

One scenario now bruited would involve a joint U.S.-Israel precision-guided strike against the Bushehr, Natanz and Arak nuclear projects in Iran. But the Bush administration has concluded a U.S. air attack against Iran would trigger a major Iranian campaign to destabilize Iraq. The two countries share a 1,458-kilometer (906-mile) border stretching from Turkey to the Shatt al Arab terminal on the Gulf. Iran also enjoys wide grass-roots support among Iraq’s dominant Shi’ite population.

A U.S. House of Representatives resolution last May 6 authorized “all appropriate means” to end Iranian nuclear weapons development. The Senate is yet to vote on the resolution. But it leaves no doubt it is a green light for offensive military strikes against Iran’s three nuclear facilities.

The worldwide reaction against a U.S. attack on Iran’s theocratic regime would almost certainly put an end to growing moderate dissent. Rival Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain (headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet) would close ranks against U.S. interests. America’s allies would denounce a return to dangerous U.S. unilateralism after President Bush’s recent moves back to multilateral diplomacy.

While an “October surprise” of U.S. air strikes to rid the world of Iran’s looming nuclear threat might help President Bush Nov. 2, the blowback of unintended consequences would further destabilize the world’s most volatile region — the Middle East.

U.S. air strikes at this juncture would quickly be equated with the CIA-engineered coup that overthrew Iran’s socialist leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, which many Iranians say led to the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 that overthrew the monarchy, forced the late shah into exile, and allowed obscurantist mullahs to rule the country. The mullahs made the excesses of the shah’s Savak secret police seem like child’s play compared to the tens of thousands executed by the religious extremists and their Revolutionary Guards.

Israeli leaders concluded years ago that A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb and the world’s biggest nuclear proliferator, had sold bomb-making wherewithal to Iran and nothing would reverse this capability short of air strikes, similar to the one Israeli fighter-bombers conducted in 1981 against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad. It had been built with French assistance, including 27.5 pounds of 93 percent weapons-grade uranium.

When Israeli intelligence confirmed Iraq’s intention of producing weapons at Osirak, Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided military action was the only remedy. Elections then and now were a consideration. Mr. Begin feared his party would lose the next election, and the opposition Labor Party would fail to pre-empt prior to production of the first Iraqi nuclear bomb. Iraq was believed to be two years from its first nuclear weapon.

So Israel had to strike before the Iraqi reactor went critical, before the first fuel was poured into the reactor, lest the surrounding community fall victim to radiation.

The target was 1,100 kilometers (660 miles) from Israel. Target mock-ups were part of a full-scale dress rehearsal. Briefing the cream of Israeli Air Force pilots, Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan said, “The alternative is our destruction.” The surprise attack by F-15s and F-16s vaporized Osirak in 80 seconds, too fast for Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners to get off their first salvo.

Similar preparations to take out Iran’s capabilities — also judged to be two years from nuclear fruition — have been completed. Standoff, precision-guided munitions will have to be used to avoid Iran’s thick air defenses, including missiles purchased from Russia.

Under an $800 million contract, Russia began building Iran’s Bushehr reactor in May 1995 with 150 technicians at the site. The Russian contract called for 3,000 Russian engineers and construction workers. By 1999, some 300 Russians were among the 900 workers there.

After several years of denial about an Iranian bomb-making potential, President Putin of late has sided with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s chief Mohamed el Baradei’s strong criticism of Iran’s bad faith in its refusal to comply with the international inspection regime. Mr. Putin presumably realizes a nuclear-armed Iran ruled by religious fanatics would probably be tempted to pass on dangerous stuff to Islamist guerrillas in Chechnya.

Originally started during the shah’s reign in a deal with Siemens, some 2,100 German and 7,000 Iranian workers completed 85 percent of the work before the 1979 revolution. The ayatollahs then decided to drop the entire project as “anti-Islamic,” before changing their minds in favor of construction in the early 1990s. Fearful anxiety prevailed among the clerics after they watched in awe the deployment of half a million American soldiers and the five weeks of saturation U.S. bombing that preceded Operation Desert Storm — and the collapse of the Iraqi army. They watched a rerun of another U.S. military spectacular in 2003 — with yet another collapse of the Iraqi military.

The Europeans still believe political, economic and trade sanctions will eventually bring Iran into compliance. The Bush administration is on the horns of a painful dilemma. How can it claim Iran has no right to nuclear weapons when Israel not only possesses both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, but has several hundred in its arsenal? Pre-empting Iran would also undermine the administration’s last shred of credibility as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians.

After all the blue-smoke-and-mirrors “intelligence” that justified the U.S. invasion of Iraq 15 months ago, CIA evidence of an Iranian nuclear bomb would have to be incontrovertible. This sets the bar impossibly high. Hence Israel’s conclusion it is on its own. Bombs away? Not yet, but they’ve rehearsed it.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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