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The Next Mideast War

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Israel Openly Warns Iran of Pre-emptive Attack over Nuclear Threat

June 9th 2008

Military - Israeli Air Force
Israeli Air Force Jets

Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a recent defense minister, caused an international uproar with still unfolding consequences by announcing in no uncertain terms this week that Israel will in fact attack Iran. 

Mofaz stated that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites is "unavoidable" in light of the ongoing failures of the international community to belay Iranian attempts to acquire nuclear capabilities.

“If Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it. The sanctions are ineffective," Mofaz told Israel’s mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.  He added, "Attacking Iran, in order to stop its nuclear plans, will be unavoidable.” Mofaz also said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "will disappear before Israel does," referring to Ahmadinejad’s regular comments calling for the destruction of the State of Israel.

The explicit warning came on the heels of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's loud proclamation in Washington at the annual policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee that "Israel will not tolerate the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and neither should any other country in the free world." Olmert also warned, “"The Iranian threat must be stopped by all possible means,” He continued "International economic and political sanctions on Iran, as crucial as they may be, are only an initial step, and must be dramatically increased…The international community has a duty and responsibility to clarify to Iran, through drastic measures, that the repercussions of their continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will be devastating.”

Since Mofaz’s unambiguous statements, Israeli defense and diplomatic officials have taken Mofaz to task. Mark Regev – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman – declined to respond directly to Mofaz's statement, indicating that it did not necessarily reflect the prime minister's thinking.

But Regev added, “All options must remain on the table. At this time we believe that what are needed are tangible steps by the international community, steps that will put pressure on the regime in Teheran." Regev said Olmert discussed those steps during his recent visit to Washington that included a meeting with President George W. Bush.

Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan, another military expert, commented to Israel Radio that, "In every subject related to war, it's preferable for ministers not to speak unless it has been decided on ahead of time in a careful and organized way."

Troublesome Backdrop

Mofaz’s comments were made over the backdrop of accelerating Iranian efforts to seek nuclear technology. UN inspectors were shocked by the recent discovery of an Iranian document describing the process for making the potential core of a nuclear weapon. Recently, Internal Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Deputy Director General Olli Heinomen met with diplomats in a closed-door meeting. During the session, Heinomen revealed that the IAEA had gathered information from 10 different countries' intelligence agencies which suggested that Iran had previously engaged in weaponization studies.

Tehran called the allegations of pursuing bomb-making "baseless" and claimed that the intelligence was fabricated. However, the 15-page document appears to be the recipe for the process of machining uranium metal into two hemispheres like those used in nuclear warheads.

At least two diplomats who attended the secret briefing with IAEA said, under condition of anonymity, that Heinomen talked in detail about the uranium metal document. Heinomen was quoted as describing the 15-page document as "alarming," suggesting that there was no reason for any nation to have such a document unless they intended to produce uranium hemispheres for a nuclear weapon.

Iran maintains it received the controversial document in 1987 together with design information for the P1 centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Authorities in Tehran insist that it did not originally request the uranium metal document. But the IAEA said in its latest report that the agency needed to understand the precise role of the document so that the true nature of Iran's disputed nuclear program could be accurately determined.

Heinomen declined to comment on his statements during the briefing. He described the closed-door briefing as an "informal technical meeting."

In a recently released report, the IAEA expressed "serious concern" that Iran is hiding information about the alleged weaponization studies, in addition to defying UN demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Experts and observers detected a tone in the report's language which suggests that the IAEA is growing frustrated with what it perceives as Iran's stonewalling of the agency's investigations. The report said that the IAEA was "of the view that Iran may have additional information" regarding intelligence that suggested it may have looked into high explosives such as those used in implosion-type nuclear bombs, and explored possible modifications to missiles consistent with making them capable of nuclear weapon delivery.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, spoke with reporters after the briefing on Thursday leveling accusations of the intelligence being "fake" and "lousy". Soltanieh also accused the United States of attempting to influence the IAEA inspectors for its own political gain.

Iran's primary contention about the intelligence authenticity is that none of the documentation bore any official stamp marking it as classified, confidential, or top secret. Soltanieh stated that numerous additional discrepancies prove that the intelligence was "forged and fabricated.”

Israel seems to be among the nations now certain that Iran is pressing ahead on a nuclear weapon. The latest disclosures were undoubtedly the basis for the swift public warning by the Jewish State, which has a history of pre-emptive attacks on nuclear facilities. In 1981, Israel launched Operation Baghdad to surgically destroy Saddam Hussein’s French-built Osirek reactor before the Iraqi dictator could advance a nuclear program.

Nor is Israel alone in its conviction that Iran is inexorably pursuing a nuclear weapon. US ambassador to the IAEA, Gregory Shulte cited briefings in his assertion, "There are strong reasons to suspect that Iran was working covertly and deceitfully, at least until recently, to build a bomb. Iran has refused to explain or even acknowledge past work on weaponization. This [discovery of the Iran’s weapons notebook] is particularly troubling when combined with Iran's determined effort to master the technology to enrich uranium. Uranium enrichment is not necessary for Iran's civil program but it is necessary to produce the fissile material that could be weaponized into a bomb."  

Not long ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report concluding that Iran “failed to provide substantive answers" to accusations that it had in the past sought a nuclear bomb. The report also accused Iran of withholding key information about alleged nuclear weapons studies. These include research, engineering work and tests carried out until a few years ago that may have had a military dimension. Additionally, the IAEA noted that Iran while at present had only 3,500 centrifuges, those first machines could be seen as a mere testing phase. Iran’s goal of having 6,000 running by the summer was “pretty much plausible,” the IAEA added.

Centrifuges are a necessary component to the enrichment process. The centrifuge is a separating machine specifically developed to separate Uranium-235 from Uranium-238. The gas centrifuge relies on the principles of centripetal force accelerating molecules based upon size. When performed in a column, this yields separations of each component. The significant advantage of the gas centrifuge is that it relies on multiple centrifugal runs using cascades of centrifuges. This process yields higher concentrations of the Uranium-235 isotopes with significantly less energy usage compared to the previous gaseous diffusion process. Consequently, the greater number of centrifuges, the greater the yield of weapons-grade material. Hence, the Iran’s move toward its nuclear threshold is a matter of a ticking clock.

Despite unrelenting Iranian claims that they are not seeking nuclear weapons, rhetoric from Tehran does not build confidence in such a position. Recently, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did stress in a speech broadcast live on state television that Iran “would not bow to Western pressure and halt sensitive atomic work…Iran is not after nuclear weapons. It is after peacefully using nuclear energy ... we will follow this path and ... will reach it.”

But Khamenei’s comment can only be counterbalanced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s well-known vitriolic rhetoric calling for the end of the State of Israel. Such statements further undercut Iranian claims of pursuit of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.  His most recent rant on the disappearance of Israel came during a ceremony honoring the late founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Accusing Israel of decades of aggression, he said the country “has reached the end of its function and will soon disappear off the geographical domain.”

Policy Position or Political Pandering

Worried analysts have been scouring over Mofaz’s comments in an attempt to determine for which audience his comments were made. Some argue that Mofaz was pandering to a domestic audience as he launches his campaign to replace Prime Minister Olmert as head of the Kadima Party in light of calls for the Prime Minister’s resignation over suspicion of graft.

Iranian-born Mofaz has been a major rival of Olmert, especially since the 2006 elections when Olmert was forced to hand the defense portfolio to Labor, his main coalition partner, this at Mofaz's expense.

Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i released a statement regarding Mofaz’s comments saying that "the cynical use of Israel's strategic matters for party politics is beyond the pale and very serious." Vilna'i said it would be wise to remain silent and "leave matters of security to those taking care of them."

The Jerusalem Post quotes one government source as saying that Mofaz's comments must be seen within the context of the political jockeying inside the Kadima political party to replace Olmert:  “According to this source,” the article asserted, “Mofaz is staking out a hawkish position on a number of issues because he feels this will resonate well with Kadima voters in his competition with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. In this same vein, the official said, Mofaz only last week came out against a withdrawal from the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria.”

Other analysts argue that Mofaz, who is also designated as a deputy prime minister, has remained privy to Israel's defense planning. He is a member of Olmert's security cabinet and leads regular strategic coordination talks with the US State Department.

Realities of War

The analysts who are pondering Mofaz’s comments for kernels of truth are looking at other indicators. For instance, the White House has understandably worked to play down Mofaz’s comments. White House spokesperson Dana Perino emphasized that the Bush Administration was committed to diplomatic means to stop Teheran's nuclear ambitions. But in response to a question on use of force, Perino said, the President "would never take any options off the table."

Options were indeed the topic of discussion during Prime Minister Olmert’s recent visit to Washington.  Reports indicate Olmert pushed President Bush to take a more assertive methodology toward Iran.  Sources close to Prime Minister Olmert said that he intended to tell Bush “time is running out on diplomatic efforts.”

Israel’s warnings takes on new meaning when tied to reports that Prime Minister Olmert raised with President Bush the possibility of acquiring a squadron of F-22 fighters. The Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor is a single-seat, double-engine stealth fighter aircraft. While primarily an air superiority fighter, the F-22 possesses multiple capabilities that include ground attack, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence roles.

Manufactured in Fort Worth, Texas, and operating out of Langley, Virginia, Florida and New Mexico, the Raptor is claimed to be the world’s most effective air superiority fighter. The US Air Force claims that the F-22 cannot be matched by any known or projected fighter aircraft. As a result, the US Congress imposed an embargo on the sale of the aircraft to foreign countries.

The Jerusalem Post has reported Major General Elazar Shkedy – who stepped down as head of the Israeli Air Force last month – that “given the opportunity, Israel would buy the F-22, no matter the $150 million per-unit price tag. Shkedy's principle was that Israel always needs to have the most-advanced and most-superior military platforms.” Last year, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz was one of the first foreigners to see the assembly line close up when he visited the plant together with a delegation of Israeli lawmakers.

The congressional ban on any such sale was imposed out of fear that the plane's unique stealth technology could fall into hostile hands. But Congress and the Administration appear to be opening to NATO allies possessing the plane. A move was afoot to expand the NATO exemption to include such as allies as Israel.

Howard Berman, Chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives, said he was open to removing the restriction on F-22 sales to boost Israeli deterrence. "I'm a strong supporter of Israel getting all the material and equipment they need," said Berman. Referring to the possibility of removing the ban on F-22 sales to Israel, he said, "I certainly would look at it."

Any effort by Berman to drop the ban on sales of the F-22 – described in the past as based on protecting the US from the transfer of technology to the wrong actors – would have to be matched in the Senate. Still, as a leading figure in the House on international issues and a staunch supporter of Israel, Berman would be a key player on moving such a priority forward. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama (D-IL) told a cheering AIPAC audience that he endorsed an idea permitting Israel to gain access to the F-22.

If Congress decided to allow foreign sales, the US would not be able to sell the plane just to Israel. It would likely have to sell to additional allies and could face a complex dilemma if and when Saudi Arabia asked to buy the plane. This would set the stage for another AWACS debacle. Indeed, Israel is not the only country asking for the plane. Japan has expressed interest. During a visit to Australia in February, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was presented with a down under request to buy the plane and said he would look into the possibility of lifting the ban.

Iranian Response

The Iranian response to Mofaz’s comments were expected by most observers. Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon and to the Security Council calling the comment "unlawful."

His note stated, “Such a dangerous threat against a sovereign state and a member of the United Nations constitutes a manifest violation of international law and contravenes the most fundamental principles of the charter of the United Nations, and, thus, requires a resolute and clear response on the part of the United Nations, particularly the Security Council.”

Much like his many other notes to UN leaders regarding Israel, this latest note of Khazaee failed to make any mention of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated calls for the destruction of Israel.

Cutting Edge News Foreign Editor Joseph Grieboski is President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy and Secretary General, Interparliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom.

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