Monday, August 23, 2004

JERUSALEM — The distribution of anti-radiation pills to residents near Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona last month caused more puzzlement than panic. There had never been a known radiation leak from the facility and there were no signs of war that might pose a near-term risk to the reactor.

Pronouncements from military chiefs in Tehran and Tel Aviv, however, have cast the pill distribution in a new light.

“The entire Zionist territory, including its nuclear facilities and atomic arsenal, are currently within range of Iran’s advanced missiles,” Yadollah Javani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s political bureau, declared last week.

He was speaking after a test-firing of the ballistic Shihab-3 missile. With a range of 800 miles, it can reach any target in Israel, most particularly Dimona.

Mr. Javani said threats had been made by U.S. and Israeli officials to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. But with Israel now covered by the Shihab missile, he said, “neither the Zionist regime nor America will carry out its threats.”

Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli chief of staff, sounded no less pugnacious in an interview in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Iran’s nuclear development, said the general, must be halted, one way or another, before it proceeds much further.

“Iran is striving for nuclear capability,” he said, “and I suggest that in this matter [Israel] not rely on others,” a clear reference to diplomatic efforts by the United States and European powers to get Iran to give up its ambitions.

Gen. Ya’alon noted that Israel had eliminated Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, destroying the facility in a long-range air attack just before it was to come on line. Imagine what it would be like, said Gen. Ya’alon, if Saddam Hussein had been permitted to achieve a nuclear capability.

Israeli officials say the diplomatic efforts have succeeded in slowing down Iran’s nuclear development by about two years. An intelligence assessment made to the Israeli Cabinet last month said Tehran will be able to produce enriched uranium on its own for nuclear weapons in 2007, not in 2005 as previously thought.

However, an unusual sense of urgency was attached to the distribution of Lugol anti-radiation pills by the Defense Ministry and the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. The agencies sent soldiers from house to house in two towns near the Dimona reactor and from tent to tent in adjacent Bedouin areas instead of keeping them stored in a regional facility until needed.

An air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is well within Israel’s operational capacity. A major reason its air force purchased F-15Is from the United States in the 1990s was to have a warplane capable of operating over Iran. Israel’s Ofek satellite presumably is able to provide updated intelligence information on Iran’s nuclear sites.

If Israel carried out an attack, it almost certainly would be done before Iran activated the reactor so as to avoid radioactive fallout that would endanger civilian areas. It is the political and strategic fallout that Israel would have to consider before undertaking such an attack.

Israel fears that some moderate and even friendly countries in the region might change their policies if they thought they could hide under an Iranian nuclear umbrella. “If Iran has nuclear capability,” said Gen. Ya’alon, “it would be a different Middle East. Moderate states would become more extreme.”

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