Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Iran and Syria are rapidly rearming Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon as an international peacekeeping force has failed to carry out a U.N. mandate to disarm the Shi’ite militia group, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday.

Mr. Mofaz, a former defense minister and chief of general staff in the Israeli Defense Force, also warned that time was growing short for the international community to implement effective sanctions to halt Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.

“We know the policy of the Iranian regime is to buy time by talking” while it pursues a nuclear bomb, Mr. Mofaz said in an interview in his suite at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in Washington. “So far they have been very successful.”

The hawkish Mr. Mofaz is the transportation minister under the unity government headed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but he remains a major voice on defense and security issues in Israel.

He met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte, among others, on a visit to Washington this week in advance of U.S.-Israel security talks set for December.

Mr. Mofaz said Israel’s 34-day war with Hezbollah fighters this summer had dealt the Shi’ite militia a major setback in its southern Lebanese base. But he expressed frustration that the Lebanese army and an enhanced U.N. peacekeeping force had not disarmed Hezbollah or sealed the border to prevent Syria and Iran from rearming their “proxy.”

“Arms smuggling across the border from Syria has continued after the war,” he said. “We know of the activity but we don’t know what types of weapons are involved.”

He acknowledged that Israel’s armed forces “did not achieve all our goals” in the Lebanon campaign, failing to crush Hezbollah as a fighting force and to win the release of Israeli soldiers held by the Shi’ite group.

But he said the “main issue of discussion” with U.S. officials was Iran.

“Iran poses the biggest threat not only to the state of Israel but to the countries of the West as well,” he said. “Under the umbrella provided by a nuclear capability, Iran might be more involved in harboring, supporting and financing terror.”

Mr. Olmert told reporters last week that Iran would have a “price to pay” if it rejected international offers to stop its suspect nuclear programs. But Mr. Mofaz yesterday put greater stress on multilateral efforts to pressure Iran, calling for strong sanctions against Tehran if it refuses to cooperate.

“The time has come for effective sanctions after three years of dialogue without any achievements,” he said.

The North Korea nuclear test earlier this month has heightened the need for a tough stand against Iran, Mr. Mofaz said. North Korea has sold Iran missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads, and Mr. Mofaz said Pyongyang’s test of a nuclear device means it could now transfer “nuclear assets” to Iran as well.

On Syria, Mr. Mofaz dismissed as a “ploy” recent offers by President Bashar Assad for direct peace talks with Israel, saying Damascus continues to support Hezbollah and militant Palestinian groups battling Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

“We believe it is not [Syria’s] intention to have a real negotiation,” he said. “When we see real intentions for peace in Syria, then we can have a different approach.”

Mr. Olmert is expected to travel to Washington next month for talks, and the Bush administration is pressing for new movement on peace talks with the Palestinians.

But Mr. Mofaz said the bloody internal standoff in the Palestinian territories between the Hamas government, which refuses to recognize Israel, and the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas leaves Israel with no effective negotiating partner.

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