As the world's media and foreign ministries have again trained their sights in on Israel and the Palestinians, a much more significant drama is being largely underplayed.
At its meeting next month in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency will address the recent confirmation of reports that Iran is now poised to produce nuclear weapons.
Since a consortium of Russian companies signed an $800 million deal in 1996 to build a 1,000-megawatt light water nuclear reactor for Iran in Bushehr, most efforts by the US and Israel to stop the Iranian nuclear program have centered around applying pressure on the Russian government.
"The Iranians learned from Iraqi mistakes," says a senior Israeli intelligence official who is involved in efforts to monitor the Iranian nuclear program.
"The Iraqis worked 80 percent in secret and 20 percent in public on their nuclear program. This attracted attention to the program and made it possible to take action to prevent them from moving forward.
"In contrast," he says, "Iran works 80 percent in public and 20 percent in secret in developing its nuclear weapons program. It moves forward publicly, lulling the international community into a sense of complacency that all the Iranians are building is a nuclear power plant. Then suddenly we discover that they are on the verge of producing nuclear bombs."
Last August, an Iranian rebel group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, showed that the Bushehr plant might very well be little more than a sideshow to the real Iranian nuclear program.
The group's disclosure, which was later substantiated by satellite imagery, indicated that Iran secretly developed two other nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak. The Natanz plant is used for the production of nuclear fuel, and the Arak facility is used for the production of heavy water. While Russian companies have been under constant Western intelligence surveillance, it appears that these two facilities have been built with intense and little noted Chinese, Pakistani, and North Korean assistance.
When satellite images taken after the group's disclosure backed up the allegations, IAEA director Muhammad el-Baradei requested permission from the Iranian government to inspect the sites last December. In what is itself a violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty, (NPT) of which Iran is a signatory, the Iranian government delayed the inspection until February.
The IAEA's inspections were limited to the Natanz facility due to Baradei's tight schedule. Visiting the Natanz plant, Baradei and his inspectors found a network of centrifuges for enriching uranium. At the time Baradei indicated that a pilot facility at the site was complete and that a large centrifuge enrichment plant was still under construction. He described the plant as sophisticated and comprehensive.
Reports have noted that the Natanz facility already has 160 operational centrifuges and that an additional 1,000 are set for production in the next 18 months.
If left to their own devices, with the enriched uranium produced by these centrifuges, by 2005 the Iranian government will be able to field several uranium-based nuclear weapons every year. The still uninspected heavy-water plant in Arak will presumably be capable of producing plutonium-based nuclear weapons.
For their part, the Russians appear to be cooperating in the attempt to rein in the Iranians. Although they refuse to curtail their involvement with the Bushehr reactor, they have conditioned the operation of the Bushehr plant on Iranian agreement that the spent fuel rods from the reactor, which can be used to produce enriched plutonium, be returned to Russia. The Iranians have refused to sign on to the Russian proposal and as a result, although complete, the Bushehr plant is not operational.
As MK Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, notes, "The Iranian nuclear program is of course a strategic threat to Israel, but it is far from being only Israel's problem. The Iranians are now enhancing their ballistic missile capabilities to cover not only Israel but targets throughout Europe. A nuclear armed Iran, capable not only of bombing Israel, but of bombing Europe, will be a force of global instability and will significantly change the global balance of power."
As with every other significant national security and foreign policy issue, the Bush administration is divided on how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. Hawks in the Pentagon are pushing for the US to force the IAEA to find Iran in material breach of the NPT at its meeting next month. Such a finding would open the Iranian nuclear program to UN Security Council scrutiny that could lead to UN-sanctioned military action similar to the actions taken by the Security Council against Iraq in 1990. At the very least, it could have salutary effects on the US's thus far unsuccessful bid to force Europe to cut economic ties with the mullocracy.
For its part, the State Department, as usual has recommended traveling a less contentious path that involves "engaging" the Iranian government in an "unofficial" dialogue that has been taking place over the past several months in Geneva under UN supervision. At these meetings, the Iranian officials have denied that they are pursuing nuclear weapons just as they refused to accept that Hizbullah is a terrorist organization, denied supporting terrorism, and pretended they are not harboring al-Qaida commanders. That is, these unofficial negotiations with the Iranians, which as recently as early this month the State Department recommended making official, have been characterized by complete Iranian duplicity.
At the same time, by soft-pedaling the Iranian threat, the State Department is paving the way for a failure at the IAEA meeting next month. Speaking to Reuters, a Western diplomatic official in Vienna said last week that Baradei is expected merely to note that there are "inconsistencies" in the Iranian nuclear program that need to be explained.
In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal this week, former FBI director Louis Freeh addressed the issue of the Iranian threat to US national security. Calling Hizbullah, "the exclusive terrorist agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran," he criticized the Clinton administration for refusing to apply pressure on Iran after the FBI found that its security services stood behind the 1996 Hizbullah bombing of the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where 19 US airmen were killed. Then, too, the US has accused Teheran of sheltering top al-Qaida terrorists like Said Adel, the network's security chief, and Osama bin Laden's son Saad. Washington further alleges that al-Qaida operatives in Iran directed the May 12 terror attacks against US targets in Riyadh in which 34 people were murdered.
In addition to Hizbullah and al-Qaida, the Iranians also control the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, finance Hamas, and since the Karine-A weapons sale to the PA was concluded in late 2001, Iranian intelligence authorities have been backing and instructing Fatah terror cells as well.
In the aftermath of the May 12 attacks, the State Department suspended its dialogue with the Iranian government and raised its rhetoric against the Iranian regime. And yet, in spite of the clear strategic threat posed by a nuclear armed Iran, the State Department has been spending its energy not playing up the IAEA meeting next month, but in pressuring Israel to accept its road map to establish a Palestinian state by 2005 –just in time for the Iranians to declare that they are vacating their signature to the NPT and possess a nuclear arsenal capable of hitting targets in Israel and Europe.
In a conversation with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon earlier in the week, US President George W. Bush reportedly said he is c
onvinced that PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is committed to reforming the PA and fighting terrorism. And yet, the day after this conversation, Abbas himself told the Egyptian press that as far as he is concerned, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, and not he, remains the head of the PA.
In Abbas's words, "Arafat is at the top of the [Palestinian] Authority. He's the man to whom we refer, regardless of the American or Israeli view of him." As well, both Abbas and his new foreign minister, Arafat lackey Nabil Shaath, have gone on record stating that Abbas's government will not take any action against Palestinian terrorist cells.
In an article in The Atlantic Monthly published in August 1992, Robert Kaplan discussed how it came to pass that the US government was caught unawares when Saddam Hussein marched his army into Kuwait in August 1990. By Kaplan's telling, after the Iraq-Iran war ended in 1988, US policy regarding Saddam became vague. With little direction from the White House, Saddam's 1988 gassing of 5,000 Kurds met with little backlash from Washington, as Arabists in the State Department were given more or less free rein regarding US policy towards Iraq. These career Arabists, like then ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie argued that Saddam, while a dictator, had a pro-Western orientation.
As Kaplan noted, "The only Middle East issue that really energized [US secretary of state James] Baker was the one with a domestic political payoff: the Arab-Israeli question." Together with his senior policy aides Dennis Ross and Dan Kurtzer, Baker poured all his energy and leverage into pressuring then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir's government to open negotiations with PLO-backed Palestinians.
Acting in this manner, Baker failed to take note of what Saddam was planning for Kuwait. This, in spite of the fact that in April 1990, four months before the invasion, Chas Freeman, then US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, warned specifically that Saddam was likely to invade Kuwait.
For anyone with eyes to see, it is clear that Abbas's ascension to power in the PA is a farce. The new wave of massacres in Israel and Abbas's declared allegiance to Arafat and Hamas are simply expressions of the obvious: Abbas is not a trustworthy interlocutor and by supporting his sham of reform, the US is supporting the terrorist organizations murdering Israelis as well as their state supporters in Teheran.
There is an old joke about a man groping around on the street at night. His friend approaches him and asks him what he is doing.
"I'm looking for my keys," he responds.
"Did you drop them here?" his friend asks.
"No, I dropped them in the alley across the way. But there's no light in the alley, so I'm looking for them here."
The prime danger to US national security lies in Teheran. The key to the global Islamic terror nexus that stretches across the world is found in the dark allies of Teheran, not in the well lit streets of Jerusalem. Rather than pressuring an ally to reward Teheran's terrorist friends, the US should be using all its leverage throughout the world to prevent the ayatollahs from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The price the US paid in 1990 for ignoring Saddam Hussein in favor of pressuring Israel was the Gulf War. The price it will pay for repeating the mistake with Iran will be a nuclear nightmare.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.