Monday, January 8, 2007

“Contingency plans” are best served with lots of salt, but the Iranians are taking the latest tale about Israeli “plans” to take out Tehran’s nuclear sites with red pepper.

No one doubts that the Israelis have drawn up such plans, to use low-yield nuclear weapons to destroy the Iranian nuclear threat once and for all, or at least until next time. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the Pentagon there are no doubt contingency plans for invading Scotland, laying siege to Liechtenstein and for accepting the surrender of France. When you need a contingency plan, you need it now.

Nevertheless, the destruction of the Iranian nuclear sites is taken very seriously indeed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the seriously creepy president who insists that Israel must be destroyed and who has more or less dared the West to do something about it. He sent his Foreign Ministry spokesman out to bluster in the wake of the latest report, in London’s Sunday Times, that Israel has nuclear bombers idling on the runway, waiting for the tower to clear them for takeoff.

“Now this will convince the international community that the main threat to the world … is the Zionist regime,” he said, and not only that, it proves that Israel has nuclear weapons. Prudent men assume that Israel has such weapons and have done so since long before the Israeli prime minister hinted — in a slip of the tongue that might not have been a slip at all — that Israel was “among the world’s nuclear-equipped nations.”

In Israel, Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, fell back on convenient diplomatic argle-bargle, neither confirming nor denying the speculation. Israel is focused on diplomacy, he said, “and if diplomacy succeeds, the problem can be solved peaceably.” And so it can. But if diplomacy does not succeed in assuring Israeli security, and there’s no reason to think it will since it never has, what then?

The rest of the West, which is mostly interested in making sure that nobody disturbs nap time, has always assumed that if the Americans don’t do the deed, the Israelis will. The Jews will have no choice; survival is the only game they’re allowed to play.

By the London account, two Israeli air force squadrons have been training for months to drop low-yield nuclear “bunker busters” on an enrichment plant near the town of Natanz, a heavy water facility at Arak and the uranium conversion plant at Isfahan. Laser-guided conventional bombs would soften the targets, boring tunnels leading to the core of the facilities, and nuclear warheads would then be inserted to explode deep underground, minimizing fallout.

The detail of the plans is impressive, so impressive in fact that it raises questions about why a well-informed Israeli source would talk so irresponsibly to a newspaper correspondent. Anyone with so much information would be confidently relied on to keep his mouth tightly shut. The Sunday Times reported earlier that Israel, at the direction of Ariel Sharon, was ready with a combined air-ground attack to destroy the Iranian nukes.

The most obvious explanation is that the story is a carefully constructed ruse, intended to warn President Ahmadinejad that creep or not he had better shape up if he knows what’s good for him. “It’s possible that this was a leak done on purpose,” says Reuven Pedatzur, a private defense analyst in Jerusalem, “as deterrence, to say ‘Someone better hold us back, before we do something crazy.’ ” Ephraim Kam, an analyst at Tel Aviv University, agrees: “No reliable source would ever speak about this.”

Or it may be a ruse not directed at the Iranians, but at anyone in the West still listening. The Sunday Times account suggests that Israel may be attempting to pressure the United States to stiffen its on-again, off-again diplomatic offensive, with credible threats of something more persuasive to come, and to warn the Europeans, wet as always, to shut up and get out of the way. A London newspaper would be just the right voice to send the message. With salt — and pepper, too.

Pruden on Politics runs Tuesday and Friday.

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