Saturday, May 15, 2004

On Tuesday, the Iranian official in charge of stonewalling international inspections of its atomic weapons program once again warned Israel against launching a military strike against the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities. “If such an incident happens, it will meet a resolute response from our side,” said Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s chief negotiator with the International Atomic Energy Agency on nuclear matters.

Mr. Rowhani has yet to specify what form such a response might take. But in December, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani declared that Iran would retaliate with long-range missiles if Israel attacked its nuclear facilities. Mr. Shamkhani said that Iran’s Shahab-3 missile — which is based in part on technology acquired from North Korea and has an 800-mile range — would be one of the weapons used.

In truth, the Rowhani and Shamkhani statements are just the latest in an ongoing series of threats directed against Israel. In a Dec. 14, 2001, speech, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said that it might be a good thing to strike Israel with nuclear weapons. “The application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world,” Mr. Rafsanjani said. “Jews shall expect to be once again scattered and wandering around the globe the day when this appendix [Israel] is extracted from the region and the Muslim world.”

Ever since the toppling of the shah a quarter-century ago, Iran has been committed to the destruction of Israel, a commitment it has backed up until now by supporting terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Since Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah has stepped up its coordination with Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups.

This has been a relatively low-cost proposition for Iran, which confines itself to writing checks and allows the terrorist organizations to do the dirty work, but a very high-cost proposition for Israel, which has lost nearly 900 people to this terrorist violence since September 2000. Even though Iran has been financing terrorism against Israel since the early 1980s, Israel has never launched a retaliatory strike against the regime.

One of Israel’s biggest foreign policy nightmares is the possibility that Tehran will acquire atomic weapons and find the means to deliver them to Tel Aviv or other locations in Israel’s industrial heartland. With such a deterrent capability, Iran could be tempted to think it could step up the level of terrorist violence against Israel in the Palestinian territories at no cost to itself. That would leave Israel with two high-risk options: launching a pre-emptive strike in the hope of decapitating Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure; or hoping that a popular revolution topples the regime in Tehran very, very soon.

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