Thursday, April 27, 2006

Some observers ask, why not just let Iran go nuclear? The answer is that nuclear weapons in the hands of the mullahs would be the most dangerous combination since the dawn of the nuclear age — a nuclear-armed state with ballistic missiles led by religious zealots. It would be a serious threat to world peace and to the very survival of the 6 million people, Jews and Arabs alike, who live in Israel.

At a recent conference in support of the Palestinian government led by Hamas, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel “is heading toward annihilation.” Coupling this talk with his announcement Iran had successfully enriched uranium, Mr. Ahmadinejad made clear the intent of the Iranian leadership to destroy Israel.

It is not an idle threat. Iran is not a minor sheikdom. With more than 66 million people and an area larger than California, Texas, New York, Michigan and Ohio combined, it is a major country with a long history. Just as Cyrus the Great created the Persian Empire there 2,500 years ago, the ayatollahs now seek to create a Shi’ite empire that will dominate the Middle East. Tehran already is using its vast oil wealth to support the terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon and promises support for Hamas in Palestine. But to dominate its Arab neighbors, Iran must demonstrate its power by destroying their mutual enemy, Israel.

Iran has been developing ballistic missiles since its war with Iraq in the mid-1980s, first purchasing Russian Scuds and then producing its own model, called Shahab-1, and then extending its range as Shahab-2. The current version, Shahab-3, is based on the North Korean Nodong. With a range of 800 miles, it can reach all of Israel.

Iran is believed to have between 50 and 100 operational Shahab-3s and produces one a month, with production reportedly being increased. Modifications can extend its range to 1,000 miles, and by stacking on top a Shahab-2, a range of more than 2,000 miles could be achieved, which would reach Berlin. Tehran also may be buying North Korea’s longer-range Taepodong-2. With a second stage on top, that missile could reach the U.S. East Coast.

It was this relationship President Bush referred to four years ago when he declared Iraq, Iran and North Korea an Axis of Evil. He was widely criticized for using undiplomatic language, but he was right. The world’s evil regimes were trading weapons of mass destruction. And that was before the extent of the nuclear weapons bazaar run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Kahn was known.

Tehran recently claimed missile advances that probably are no more than propaganda. But Iran is known to be working on solid-fuel rocket engines for a “space launch vehicle,” which really would be a long-range missile, and a nose cone that can carry a nuclear weapon. The London Daily Telegraph has cited intelligence sources that claim Russian and Chinese engineers helped Iran produce a new conical warhead for the Shahab-3 that can carry a spherical nuclear device similar to the Hiroshima bomb.

Whether or not that is true, Iran is buying and producing both ballistic and cruise missiles, with help from North Korea, China and Russia, and processing uranium. This adds up to nuclear weapons and missiles that can deliver them to increasing distances. Whether this capability is achieved in a few years or longer is subject to debate. But there is little confidence in last year’s intelligence estimate that it will take a decade.

The danger is too great not to continue every effort to prevent Iran from completing its development of nuclear weapons. If the U.N. can’t act because of Russian and Chinese opposition, NATO or a new alliance of the willing must take the lead and apply meaningful sanctions. Germany’s new chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. But while diplomacy is at work, it is necessary to improve defenses.

Helping Israel upgrade its Arrow interceptors is most important since Israel is the prime target. It also is urgent to get sea-based missile defenses on ships in the Persian Gulf, to build the planned missile defense site in Europe, and to speed development of boost-phase defenses that can stop missiles of any range or capability.

James Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times and is based in Carlsbad, Calif.

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