- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

The massive stroke that cut down Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon late Wednesday night not only throws Israeli politics into turmoil. It marks the likely starting point of the coming nuclear showdown that will pit the Jewish state and the Free World against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Vice President Dick Cheney noted the inevitable nearly one year ago. He told talk radio host Don Imus just minutes before the inauguration on Jan. 20, 2005, that “the Israelis might well decide to act first” should they conclude Iran had acquired “significant nuclear capability.”

Much has happened since. In February 2005, the U.S. announced it would sell 500 conventional “bunker busting” bombs to Israel, that could be used to take out buried nuclear and missile sites in Iran. But as reality sank in about what an effective military strike against 60 to 70 Iranian sites would require, Prime Minister Sharon — a long-time battlefield general — had second thoughts.

Unilateral Israeli action, without provocation from Iran, could unleash a diplomatic, economic and military backlash such as the Jewish state had never witnessed since 1948, Mr. Sharon argued. After meeting with President Bush at his Texas ranch last April, Mr. Sharon made a strategic decision — against the advice of his own generals and intelligence staff — to place his bets on U.S.-backed nuclear negotiations with Iran led by the European Union.

Almost no one really believed those negotiations would succeed. The Europeans expressed mounting exasperation as Tehran broke its promises repeatedly, closing nuclear sites to inspectors and resuming banned nuclear processing.

Faced with the impatience of his own military, Mr. Sharon’s reasoning was simple. Every other option was worse.

Dec. 5, Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told foreign journalists in Tel Aviv he believed diplomacy was at a dead end: “The fact that the Iranians are successful time after time in getting away from international pressure… encourages them to continue their nuclear project. I believe that the political means that are used by the Europeans and the U.S. to convince the Iranians to stop the project will not succeed.”

Asked by one reporter how far Israel was ready to go to stop Iran’s nuclear projects, Gen. Halutz quipped, “2,000 kilometers.” That’s the equivalent of 1,250 miles, the distance by air between Israel and Iran’s main nuclear and missile sites.

One doesn’t need secret intelligence information or a Tehran source to decrypt the intentions of Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards commanders around him. In the last three months, he has gone out of his way to tell the world, in one forum after another, his regime intends to “wipe Israel from the map” and “destroy America.”

But consider just a few recent developments not been widely reported outside of Tehran.

• Jan. 3, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps began a two-day Tehran seminar on nuclear-biological-chemical warfare and new defense technologies. Lectures were included by Iranian experts on electromagnetic pulse weapons, graphite bombs and laser-guided bombs. These are the weapons many Western intelligence analysts believe Iran will try to use against us.

• Jan. 4, three battalions of the IRGC ground forces began three days of NBC military exercises in Semnan Province, not far from Iran’s main ballistic missile proving ground.

• In addition to a recent $1 billion arms agreement, announced last month, Russia is now negotiating with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to modernize Iran’s fleet of MiG-29 fighters with state-of-the-art radar, electronic countermeasures and reconnaissance systems, specifically to counter the threat of Israeli aircraft.

A Revolutionary Guards buying mission will visit Lukhovitsy and Kalayazin in Russia to view these new systems in February 2006. The Russians have also agreed to sell Iran S-300 anti-missile systems, believed by most experts to be superior to any comparable system available on world markets.

• Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, told Iranian TV Jan. 3 that Israel will “suffer a great loss” if it attacks Iran, noting Israel has “no strategic depth” and is “within our range.”

The same day Mr. Larijani made those remarks, the Islamic Republic authorities sent an official letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, announcing their intention to resume enrichment at various nuclear sites across Iran Jan. 9.

Resumed enrichment, which could give Iran the special nuclear material needed to make nuclear weapons, has long been cited by Israel as the “red line” it would not allow Iran to cross.

Iran now appears ready and willing to cross that red line. With Mr. Sharon sidelined from Israeli politics, Israeli military leaders are unlikely to bet on a prayer and a chance Iran just might be bluffing. After all, as Iran’s Mr. Larijani himself said, Israel is “within our range.”

Kenneth R. Timmerman is the author of “Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran” (Crown Forum, New York), and executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran.

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