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How Soon Will The U.S. Or Israel Bomb Iran?

How Soon Will The U.S. Or Israel Bomb Iran?

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 02 September 2004

I can just hear the Presidential conversation. ''Did I say Iraq backed al-Qaeda?'' he asks with a boyish grin. ''Oh, heck, I meant Iran. I always get those two mixed up.''

Steve Weissman, "Americans: The Missionary Position"

What should Iran do? What would you do if you were an Iranian Ayatollah?

The President of the United States has branded Iran part of the "Axis of Evil." He has demanded that Iran "abandon her nuclear ambitions." He has claimed the right to wage pre-emptive war against any enemy he chooses.

To add weight to these threats, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution on May 6, 2004, calling on the president "to use all appropriate means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons." The vote was overwhelming: 376 for, three against. On July 22, the Senate passed a similar resolution with wording only slight less inflammatory.

The Americans now have nearly 150,000 troops just across the border in Iraq. They also have aircraft and missiles in easy striking distance, as do the Israelis, who - as the New Yorker's Sy Hersh reported - are currently working with the Kurds to make raids into Iran.

Put yourself in Israel's shoes. The Iranians are building a major nuclear industry, with the ability to enrich bomb-grade Uranium-238 and reprocess plutonium from spent nuclear fuel rods. Iran has facilities in Tehran, Bushehr, Natanz, and Arak, and could soon produce 15-20 nuclear weapons a year, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has already found traces of the bomb-grade U-238 in Natanz and Tehran. The Iranians say this is only contamination from used centrifuges they bought from other countries.

An Iranian Bomb would challenge Israel's nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, creating a short-range, hair-trigger stand-off that would continually encourage each side to strike first before the other could.

Now think like an American neo-conservative. You and your fellow policy wonks have struggled for years to persuade both Democrats and Republicans in Washington and successive Likkud governments in Tel Aviv to play hardball throughout the Middle East. You urged them to expand control over the world's diminishing supply of oil and to overthrow nasty regimes, especially in Iraq and Iran.

Your neo-con colleagues currently hold key posts in the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington, but your policies and performance have made a hash of Iraq, causing President Bush to turn increasingly to other advisors. Worse, Mr. Bush could lose the November election amidst a burgeoning spy scandal that widely paints neo-cons, whether Christian or Jewish, as not-to-be-trusted Israeli agents.

As in the perfect storm, the activities of the three groups - Iranian Ayatollahs, Israeli Likkudniks, and American neo-cons - are now creating just the right conditions for a ghastly outcome - an aerial attack on Iran's nuclear installations. While no one can predict with certainty where the madness might lead, it would clearly isolate Israel and the United States even more from most of the world, unify rival Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, and encourage the Iranians to intervene massively in Iraq.

On the other hand, an October Surprise to make America safe from an Islamic Bomb might help Mr. Bush win a close election.

Can anything stop an attack on Iran, whether before the elections or - as I think more likely - after? At this juncture, even a cockeyed optimist has difficulty seeing much hope.

From where they stand, the Iranian leaders have little choice but to press ahead with their quest for nuclear weapons. They may say - as did the Pakistanis, Indians, and Israelis before them - that they want only peaceful uses of atomic energy. They may see nuclear power as the best way to meet a growing population's demand for electricity. In fact, much of the program began under the Shah, and with American blessings. But the Bush Administration has given Iran the strongest argument yet for wanting atomic bombs - and the missiles to drop them on Tel Aviv. Nothing less seems as likely to hold the pre-emptive Bushies at bay.

Given the way atomic energy works, the Iranians could move ahead with an entirely peaceful program to produce electricity, as they say they are doing. They could allow full inspections and monitoring from the International Atomic Energy Agency. But once they reprocess plutonium or enrich Uranium 238 in sufficient quantities, they are only weeks away from having an atomic bomb.

Senators Kerry and Edwards, the Democratic contenders, have suggested offering Iran "a great bargain." If the Iranians give up their capacity to produce bomb-grade materials and accept full supervision to ensure that they have, other countries - including the United States - will provide whatever nuclear fuel Iran needs.

It's a great start. But a Kerry Administration would also have to offer security guarantees far beyond any yet mentioned - or any they could easily mention. Too many Americans still remember with bitterness the pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini's young supporters holding fifty-two of our fellow citizens as blindfolded hostages. The Great Satan, as the Iranians called us, does not forgive and forget without an enormous effort.

Nor would the Iranians find it easy to overcome their rational fears. As Shia Muslims, with historic and religious interests in the Shia areas of Iraq, they would increasingly bump up against the Americans, who show no sign of leaving no matter who wins the November election. Even if President Kerry could contain the inevitable conflicts, some future president could easily return to the evil-hunting crusades of the current incumbent. Better a nuke in the hand, which some analysts believe the Iranians could have as early as 2006.

For the Israeli Likkudniks, and for me personally, the situation looks like déjà vu all over again. We all saw the same thing back in 1981, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin took on the French government of then-Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, which was helping Saddam Hussein build his OSIRAK nuclear reactor near Baghdad. Israel's Mossad led the charge. In April 1979, secret saboteurs entered a small French engineering firm on the French Riviera in Toulon, where they dynamited the reactor core only hours before the Iraqis could take delivery. In June 1980, in a hotel room in Paris, an unknown intruder bludgeoned to death an Egyptian nuclear engineer who played a leading role on the OSIRAK project. In August, a series of bombings and telephone threats terrorized French and Italian engineering firms supplying equipment to OSIRAK.

During that time, Mossad was also secretly leaking information to journalists about Pakistan's effort to build what Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto called his "Islamic Bomb." Among the journalists was a team from BBC's Panorama, for whom I worked. The Israelis, who would never meet me face-to-face, could never understand why a Nice Jewish Boy insisted on checking out first- hand every bit of information they proffered. In fact, our team discovered several parts of the Pakistani story Mossad had apparently missed. We also found an Israeli-American defense analyst who boldly predicted on camera that the Israelis would bomb the Iraqi reactor, which they did on Sunday, June 7, 1981.

What a scoop! Breathlessly recounted in several books and articles, the daring Israeli attack still stands as a model of pre-emptive warfare, which the Israelis now threaten to repeat on Iran. According to one recent news story, they have already rehearsed the bombing run, much as they did before sending their American-supplied F15's and F16's to wipe out OSIRAK.

But, before jumping on the bandwagon, please remember some oft-forgotten facts. Prime Minister Begin rushed the attack in part because he feared his party would lose a close election. Seeing military action as the only remedy, he also feared that his opponent Shimon Peres would try working diplomatically with the newly elected French President Francois Mitterand, who had already ordered significant steps to safeguard the Iraqi reactor. On the other side, one of Begin's staunchest supporters for the attack was his Minister of Agriculture, Ariel Sharon.

For the American neo-cons, recent events could push them to become even more extreme. The Israeli spy flap involving retired Air Force Col. Larry Franklin focuses heavily on Iran, and the cooperation between leading neo-cons, the Israelis, and Iranian exiles to overthrow the Ayatollahs. There are also suggestions of improper Pentagon arms transfers to Israel, unauthorized back-channel dealings with foreign governments and private groups, and the question of how closely the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the chief pro-Israeli lobby group, works with the Sharon government.

All of this will terribly embarrass the neo-cons, who will grasp at any straw to divert attention from both their failures in Iraq and their efforts behind the scenes. Enlarging the Iraq war to Iran offers the perfect solution. In the advice often attributed to their Pentagon protector, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "If you're having difficulty dealing with small problems, make them bigger."


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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