As U.N. Security Council ponders new sanctions against Tehran, Jerusalem is watching warilyMatthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, February 18, 2007 - Page A1
Jerusalem -- When the U.N. Security Council considers this week whether to impose new sanctions on Iran unless it abandons its nuclear weapons program, the debate will be watched closely in Jerusalem, where Israeli leaders fear that their country's very existence would be in danger if Tehran succeeds in acquiring the bomb.
Iran has never launched a direct conventional military attack on Israel, which is nearly 1,000 miles away on the far side of the Middle East. But it equips, trains and finances Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza, and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier who advocates wiping Israel off the map -- views that have made him popular with extremists in the Arab world.
Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defense minister, told a recent briefing of journalists and diplomats that Iran's revolutionary ideology, as expounded by Ahmadinejad, posed a concrete threat not just to Israel, but to the entire free world. He said Iran sees itself as a growing global power "attempting to build a territorial belt from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea."
Officially, Israeli leaders support diplomatic efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program. Sneh stopped short of advocating a military attack, but when pressed by reporters, he pointedly said that "everything should be done in order to stop it."
Israel's own nuclear arsenal is a subject of intense speculation. Officially, Israeli leaders do not admit it exists, but a 2004 survey by Jane's Intelligence Digest estimated that Israel had at least 200 nuclear weapons, including thermonuclear weapons, and a heavily guarded weapons laboratory at Dimona in the Negev Desert.
Iran insists that its nuclear-enrichment program is intended only for energy production, an assertion that the United States and Europe reject. Last year, the U.N. Security Council adopted sanctions against Iran that freeze some of its assets and bar companies from selling to Iran materials and technology that could contribute to its nuclear program. The United States advocates tougher sanctions if Iran does not halt enrichment activities, which Tehran has refused to do.
The policy of the Israeli government has always been that it will never be the first to launch nuclear weapons. Its deterrent capability is based on the widely held belief that it has a significant second-strike arsenal capable of retaliating against any strategic attack on its major cities. The United States has consistently stood by Israel in resisting efforts to declare the entire Middle East a nuclear-free zone.
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned a conference on international security in stark terms about "the Iranian threat."
"For many long years, we have followed Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, in the guise of a civilian nuclear program," said Olmert. "In all the contacts I have had, there has been clear agreement that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons or the material to produce them. ... Those who believe, as we do, that a diplomatic solution is preferable, must now muster their strength to exert pressure on Iran and thus stay the course until change is achieved."
But should the diplomacy fail, Olmert warned, Israel would be left with little choice.
"Anyone who threatens us, who threatens our existence, must know that we have the determination and capability of defending ourselves, responding with force, discretion and with all the means at our disposal as necessary. We will not place the lives of our people, the life of our country, at risk.
"We have the right to full freedom of action to act in defense of our vital interests. We will not hesitate to use it," he warned.
The level of tension is so high between the two states that Israel's Mossad espionage agency has been accused of causing the death of a leading Iranian nuclear scientist in January from gas poisoning.
Ardeshire Hassanpour, 44, a prize-winning nuclear physicist, worked at a plant in Esfahan that produces uranium hexafluoride gas, a key component in the enrichment of uranium. U.S. security consulting company Stratfor and the London Sunday Times suggested his death was a Mossad "assassination."
Mossad has a documented history of killing scientists from countries deemed to pose a grave danger to Israel, including several involved in Iraq's weapons program under Saddam Hussein. But the accusation this time is almost certainly baseless, according to Mossad sources, and goes against all known modus operandi of the agency.
Meir Amit, former head of Mossad, told The Chronicle he thought it was unlikely Israel killed the Iranian scientist, but he called for the assassination of the Iranian president.
"Personally, I am against assassinating leaders, and all my life I was against it when I was head of Mossad. But Ahmadinejad has crossed the line. With all he is doing on the nuclear front, saying Israel should be wiped off the map and arranging a conference on the Holocaust, where he said it never happened -- from my point of view, he is somebody who shouldn't be with us," said Amit.
True or not, the story of Hassanpour's killing reflects a widespread belief that Israel will stop at nothing to prevent Iran from acquiring the ability to deploy nuclear weapons. Last weekend, Israel successfully tested its Arrow anti-ballistic missile defense system, intended to intercept and neutralize Iranian warheads.
In October, Olmert appointed hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman as his minister of strategic threats -- a newly created position that appears to have Iran as its main focus. "Israel does not have the luxury of waiting with its arms folded until Iran acquires unconventional capabilities," Lieberman warned in a recent interview.
The military option could leap up the agenda if Olmert's government collapses and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins the next election, as currently predicted by opinion polls. Netanyahu has long advocated a military strike against Iran.
"Israel has to assist in the progress of an aggressive international coalition, but it also has to make sure to acquire the means necessary for our defense," Netanyahu said in an interview.
Israeli fears about Iranian intentions were buttressed by former CIA Director James Woolsey, who told the January security conference that "Iran is not remotely interested in nuclear power for purposes of electricity."
He described the Islamic republic as "a theocratic totalitarian movement for which destruction of Israel and the United States is not a policy but its very essence. It defines itself in that way. Saying that it should change its policy with respect to destroying Israel and the United States is like trying to persuade Hitler away from anti-Semitism."
But Iranian analyst Meir Javedanfar, director of MEEPAS, a Middle East political and economic analysis company, and co-author of a new book, "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran," said the Iranian ideological threat was balanced by the pragmatism of its leaders.
"I believe the ultimate goal of Iran's nuclear program is for military purposes, but I do not think Iran will ever risk a first nuclear strike against Israel," Javedanfar said in an interview.
"The Iranian leaders are fundamentalist on the surface, but when it comes to survival they are very pragmatic. They know Israel's second-strike capability and know it is very likely their country will be destroyed. They did not survive eight years of war against Saddam Hussein and 20 years of U.S. sanctions just to see their country wiped out for the sake of attacking Israel," he said.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle