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Mark Levey: Sharon's Green Light To Attack Iran

Sharon's Green Light To Attack Iran

by Mark Levey
October 02, 2004

The Bush Administration urged the members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to approve an October 31 deadline on Iran for compliance or face sanctions at the UN Security Council. Bush lost that vote. Had the motion passed, that would have started the countdown to an Israel-Iran war just days before the November 2nd elections.

Restrained by western nations on the IAEA, neoconservatives in Washington and their allies in Ariel Sharon's Likud government have had to forego the "October surprise", an attack on Iranian nuclear installations on the eve of the U.S. presidential election. Nevertheless, events already in motion indicate that a pause before World War IV could last only weeks, if George W. Bush gains a second term.

Iran's nuclear program has long been in the crosshairs. In a February 5, 2002 interview with Sharon, The Times of London wrote that according to Sharon, "Iran is the center of 'world terror,' and as soon as an Iraq conflict is concluded, [Sharon] will push for Iran to be at the top of the 'to do list' . . . He sees Iran as 'behind terror all around the world' and a direct threat to Israel."

Two-and-a-half years later, political and military preparations for an attack are complete, and the operation is reportedly ready to go. The July 18, 2004 issue of The Jerusalem Post reported, "Israel has completed military rehearsals for a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear power facility at Bushehr, Israeli officials told the London-based Sunday Times." [JP, 07/18/04, Douglas Davis, "Report: Israel's 'First-Strike' Plan Against Iran Ready"]

Training by the Israeli military for a combined commando and air strike against Iran has been ongoing for more than a year. In early 2004, planning papers were approved by Sharon. A classified document on the Iranian threat, entitled "The Strategic Future of Israel," advocates military action against "countries which develop nuclear weapons" and describes Iran as a "suicide nation" and recommends "targeted killings" of members of the country's elite, including its leading nuclear scientists. The Jerusalem Post article on July 18 seemingly laid out the specific conditions that would trigger an attack:

"Such a strike is likely if Russia supplies Iran with fuel rods for enriching uranium. The rods, currently stored at a Russian port, are expected to be delivered late next year after a dispute over financial terms is resolved.

"An Israeli defense source in Tel Aviv, who confirmed that the military rehearsals had taken place, told the paper: 'Israel will on no account permit Iranian reactors - especially the one being built in Bushehr with Russian help - to go critical.'"

That scenario now appears to have been superceded by a plan to launch attacks even if Russia does not deliver fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor, where nuclear fuel rods can reportedly be enriched into weapons grade plutonium. Russian President Valdimir Putin has recently stated that his country will not allow Iran to proceed with such a weapons program "at any cost", and has continued to withhold delivery.

However, Iran possesses an alternative means of producing enriched uranium by the centrifuge method using abundant domestic uranium ore and technology provided by Pakistani scientists. While the production of an atomic bomb is still years away, even according to the Israelis, this capability to produce nuclear fuel now provides the rationale for a preemptive attack that can come at any time.

It now appears that military action will occur long before the Behsher reactor goes critical. Ironically, just a year ago it seemed that a diplomatic solution brokered by the Europeans had defused the crisis. In October 2003, a delegation of the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France and Germany, managed to convince Tehran's leadership to sign the supplementary protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This would have given IAEA inspectors access to nuclear facilities without advance notice. Iran also agreed at that time to temporarily suspend enrichment activities as a gesture of good will.

The Iranian record of cooperation with inspectors has been mixed. Nonetheless, IAEA Director Mohammed al-Baradei has repeatedly said that there is no "smoking gun" to prove that Tehran is engaged in a prohibited nuclear weapons program: "We are not God. We cannot read minds." [Der Spiegel, 13 sept 2004, "Dancing Around the Bomb"]

It is not a violation of the accords for any signatory to produce its own nuclear fuel or operate reactors for non-military purposes such as power production and research.

Negotiators had worked to avoid Iran following the October 2002 North Korean example of complete withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, thereby exempting itself from all international inspections. Last week, after the U.S. applied pressure on the IAEA at its Vienna meeting to immediately refer alleged violations to the UN Security Counsel for sanctions, Iran indeed dug in its heals. On, September 21, Iranian President Khatami announced that Iran is converting 40 tons of uranium oxide ("yellowcake") into uranium hexafluoride gas, the feedstock for enriched uranium. Meanwhile, it has not yet resumed enrichment of the gas by spinning it in centrifuges.

The issue of an apparent double-standard applied to Israel and Iran on the nuclear issue has been divisive for IAEA. Israel is currently the sole country in the Middle East which is known to possess nuclear weapons. With several hundred nuclear warheads, it is not a signatory to the Treaty, and has never permitted outside inspections.

The IAEA will meet again on November 25 to review Iran's case and decide on follow-up action. That decision is overshadowed by the threat that Israel now seems likely to take some action following the November elections. This raises serious questions about the legality of sanctions against Iran and any unilateral action Israel might take thereafter. The NYT observes:

"Concerns about a double standard delayed an agency resolution on Iran last week. The agency's board finally passed a resolution censuring Iran on Saturday. But several European and developing countries read statements making clear that the resolution, which called on Iran to suspend its nuclear fuel activities, was neither legally binding nor could be used as a precedent for similar actions against other members, according to a Western diplomat who attended the meeting." [NYT, 09/23/04, "Iran's Plans for Nuclear Fuel Widen Global Rift Over Technology"]

Further reinforcing the impression of unfairness and lawlessness is the fact that the U.S. itself has backed out of its commitment to an international weapons inspection regime that it has long advocated. In a little noticed announcement, reported by The Washington Post (July 31, 2004) and Sydney Morning Herald (August 2, 2004), the Bush Administration proclaimed its opposition to provisions for inspections and verification as part of an international treaty to ban production of nuclear weapons materials. This announcement came at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament on a discussion about a treaty designed to reinforce the 1975 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In October 2001, President Bush removed the U.S. from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty - activation of the initial part of an operational ABM system is expected in October. During his Administration, the US has also altered its nuclear posture from that of deterrence to the development of "usable" tactical bombs that can be targeted against underground installations. Michael R. Gordon observed in The New York Times, "The targets might be situated in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya or North Korea . . ." ["Nuclear Arms for Deterrence or Fighting?" (March 11, 2002)]

Recent planning has envisioned Israeli or American air strikes in Iran to occur after a vote on the matter by the UN Security Council. The timing of that vote once created a window during which the UN might vote to sanction Iran and an attack might be launched before the U.S. elections. Zero-hour now appears to have been pushed back at least two months after European countries refused to impose an October 31 deadline urged by the Bush Administration for the IAEA to sanction Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program. That deadline, which would have occurred in the final 72 hours before the U.S. Presidential elections, was sharply rejected by key European allies. [NYT, 09/21/02, " Bush Aides Divided on Confronting Iran Over A-Bomb", Steven R. Weisman]


If Iran is attacked, and the country's surviving leaders conclude the U.S. was working hand-in-hand with Israel to bomb its facilities and kill Iranian scientists and officials, the consequences could be extremely grave. Iran shares a 1,500-mile border with Iraq, along with a majority Shi'a Muslim faith. Militarily, Iran is a far more formidable adversary than Iraq, which suffered an eight-year regime of punitive sanctions and dismantlement under UN inspection of its previous WMD capabilities.

The Monterrey Institute, Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) reports that Iran possesses an undepleted chemical warfare stockpile, and a new generation of medium-range guided missiles that can reach targets in Israel, as well as US military installations in Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. A recent CNS report, "A Preemptive Attack on Iran's Nuclear Facilities: Possible Consequences", warns that a preemptive attack is likely to result in the end with Iran redoubling its nuclear weapons program, creating an even more formidable opponent: "As the target of an unprovoked attack, Iran gains by pointing to justifications for escaping the constraints of the NPT, therefore becoming a much greater proliferation threat. Unrestrained, the Iranians will have the means and technology to eventually manufacture gas centrifuges and mine, mill, convert, and enrich uranium. Even under IAEA intrusive inspections, Iran has assembled more than 920 gas centrifuges, 120 of which were assembled in just two and a half months, between November 2003 and mid-January 2004. To enrich enough HEU to make one nuclear bomb requires running 750 gas centrifuges for one year. If Iran seceded from the NPT, and increased the size of its nuclear program, it would be able to manufacture and assemble many more gas centrifuges, and therefore rapidly enrich uranium. Once sufficient fissile material is obtained, designing a basic nuclear warhead can be easily accomplished. In the absence of intrusive inspections or threat of UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions, the only way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability would be to occupy Iran, a very unlikely occurrence given the serious challenges already faced by the United States in a smaller, weaker Iraq." Iran already has a substantial stockpile of chemical and biological weapons upon which it could draw in the event of a conflict. See, CNS report "Chemical and Biological Weapons: Possession and Programs Past and Present", Ibid., that cites unclassified CIA reports indicating Iran has one of the largest Chemical Weapons (CW) programs in the developing world, including "stockpiled chemical weapons - including blister, blood, choking, and probably nerve agents, and the bombs and artillery shells to deliver them."

For further information on Iran's WMD programs and capabilities, see the CNS country profile on the "Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East" web page at

Even in a conventional conflict, Iran is a formidable opponent, particularly in a ground war in an area where the Tehran regime would command the loyalty of the vast majority of the population. According to the CIA World Factbook, Iran today can call up 12 million men fit for military service.

U.S. troops in Iraq presently number less than 150,000, a force that is overstretched and exhausted after 15 months of ongoing guerilla war. More than 1,000 American soldiers have already been killed and over 16,000 casualties have thus far been evacuated from Iraq.

U.S. military planners have long feared the regional expansion of the conflict in Iraq risks a repeat of the hell endured by U.S. troops during the Korean War. In 1950, China intervened on the side of North Korea with more than a million troops, forcing a stalemate that half a century later remains unresolved. To deal with casualties in an Iraq war that has lasted far longer than it anticipated, the White House recently announced that it was reorganizing U.S. forces worldwide. The expectation is that if he is reelected, Bush will move to commit a further 80,000 troops to a renewed offensive against the Iraqi resistance, many of them borrowed from U.S. forces in South Korea.

The ratcheting up of pressures has been reflected in recent statements made in Tehran. On Monday, August 23, Le Monde reported the remarks of Iranian Defense Minister Ali Chamkhani, who is quoted as warning:

"We will not sit with our arms folded waiting for others to act against us (...) Some Iranian military officials feel that preventive operations are neither an American invention nor a prerogative of the United States." [Mouna Naim, Le Monde, "Iran Raises the Stakes" translated version.]

The Le Monde story goes on to report growing tensions between Iran and Israel. Over the summer, fears have risen that the Israelis may make a preemptive strike on a Russian-built Iranian nuclear reactor, as they did in 1981 against a similar nuclear installation in Iraq. The Iranians have vowed to retaliate against Israel, should such a strike take place:

"Israel, in any case, has been warned since August 11. That day Iran announced it had made a successful test of the last version of its medium range missile, Chahab-3, capable, according to the minister's explanations, of reaching Israeli territory. Four days later, the commander of the Pasdarans Corps, the army's auxiliary militia, exulted: "All of Israeli territory, including its military installations and nuclear stocks, are now within reach of Iranian missiles and advanced technology."

The nightmare scenario of a regional nuclear war following an attack on Iran is laid out in by UPI editor, Claud Salhani in, "THE FOUR DAY WAR: The Iran/Israel conflagration"

Writing for a general audience, Salhani presents a compelling picture that Iranian Revolutionar Guards would retaliate, as the CNS report predicts, by a bloody assault on US forces in Iraq. The resulting slaughter of Muslims, he writes, would cause a general uprising against U.S. allied regimes in the region, the overthrow of Gen. Musharraf, and the intervention of nuclear-armed Pakistan with the consequence of a nuclear exchange with Israel that kills millions. [LINK]


Even if a preemptive attack does not indeed touch off a wider war, threats of a U.S.-sponsored preemptive attack cast further doubts on the ability of Washington to play a stabilizing role in the region. The Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq, and the "catastrophic success" of its occupation, many believe has greatly undermined the global influence and prestige of U.S. institutions. In an effort to forestall a further slide into foreign policy disaster, powerful pressure has been applied on the White House to hold off a decision on authorizing a preemptive attack. On September 21, The Washington Post reported,

"Some experts call for a "grand bargain" that would involve an across-the-board agreement in which changed behavior by Tehran on all fronts would be negotiated in return for normal relations and investment from the West.

"Still other experts say that such an approach is overly ambitious and that "selective engagement" on a few crucial issues, including steps to stabilize Iraq, should be tried first. That view is advocated by a Council on Foreign Relations committee led by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, and Robert M. Gates, a director of central intelligence in the early 1990's." [NYT, Sept. 21, "Bush Aides Divided on Confronting Iran Over A-Bomb"]

The Democratic candidates have voiced similar concerns and solutions. On August 30, The Washington Post reported John Edwards, the Democratic Vice President nominee, offered Tehran an alternative to preemptive attack. In an interview, The Post reports that Edwards offered Iran what he calls a "great bargain":

"A John F. Kerry administration would propose to Iran that the Islamic state be allowed to keep its nuclear power plants in exchange for giving up the right to retain the nuclear fuel that could be used for bomb-making, Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards said in an interview yesterday." [LINK]

Such an accommodation with Iran could certainly be a bipartisan affair. Indeed the term, "grand bargain" seems to have appeared in this context in a 1998 article by Geoffrey Kemp writing for the Nixon Center:

"[A]n unexpected breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli peace process could make it much easier for Iran to trim its anti-Israeli rhetoric and, at the same time, reduce its support for Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In event of such positive breakthroughs, the United States and Iran should consider a "grand bargain" that would seek to limit Iran's nuclear and missile programs and open the door for U.S. -Iran cooperation on energy projects, including oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian through Iran. ["America and Iran: Roadmaps and Realism", Washington, DC (March 1998)]

The longer-term prospects for a constructive resolution of this crisis are grim, particularly if the radicals in the Bush and Sharon governments remain in power. "I'm frankly very pessimistic about the future," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy. Speaking to a New York Times reporter, Clawson added, "I don't think very much is going to happen until after the American election."

The NYT and the WP report that the current crisis is related to an internal struggle within the Administration between hard-line supporters of "regime change", efforts to force the overthrow of the Tehran government, and relative moderates who have urged diplomatic efforts and trade as means of change. The hardliners suffered a blow when faulty estimates of Iraqi WMD and resistance to the occupation led the failure of the Bush Administration's war plans for Iraq. This brought unwanted attention to the role of the Pentagon Office of Special Plans (OSP), headed by Douglas Feith, and fellow neo-conservatives, many of whom have close ties to the Israeli Right. These same figures, their estimates on Iran, and their foreign intelligence sources, now face critical scrutiny from U.S. intelligence and military officers whose Iraq advice was ignored by the White House in the run-up to invasion of Iraq, and who feel they have been unfairly vilified for many failings of Bush policy.

In a related development, on August 23, Lawrence A. Franklin, a senior OSP Iran analyst, was arrested by the FBI for allegedly passing classified documents to representatives of the American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). It has been widely reported that this is part of a wider investigation of the relationship of the neocons and their relationship with Likud and its international intelligence network. [For more on this incident see, Levey, August 30, 2004, "Bush Drops the Iran Card: The OSP-AIPAC Scandal"]

Despite mounting charges of improper intelligence activities and divided loyalties, the NYT reports that the neocons appear for now to have won the struggle within the Bush Administration over control of Iran policy going into a possible second term:

"According to a Washington Post report, Administration officials say that there was an internal debate last year but that the idea of giving aid to dissidents who might try to overthrow the Iranian government had been dropped for lack of any credible groups to support. Yet the cause of regime change in Iran is expected to be revived if President Bush is re-elected, administration officials say. Leading the charge is John R. Bolton, the under secretary of state for nonproliferation, who gave a speech last month saying that Iran's conduct did not 'bode well for the success of a negotiated approach to dealing with this issue.'" [NYT, Sept. 21, Ibidl.]

From the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Bush set the pattern for his subordinates. He may have been among the most truly gullible to agents of influence. Mr. Sharon met with Bush on five occasions since January 2000. At each meeting, Sharon has progressively increased his personal influence, as well as his sway over US policy through the neocons. In April 2002, TIME Magazine named Sharon its Man of the Week, remarking that the Israeli Prime Minister "appeared to hold in his hands the fate of the entire region - and perhaps the fate of the U.S. war on terrorism, too." [LINK]

After 9/11, Sharon was able to persuade Bush to effectively abandon the Palestinian side - a precondition that had been the prevailing American policy of backing a land-for-peace swap with Israel. Much of the case for invading Iraq to remove WMD made by the Administration was based on evidence cherry picked by Likud-linked figures in the Pentagon that are now driving Iran policy. Bolstered by his successes, Sharon then moved to lobby Bush to act against the slated next target, Israel's arch-nemesis, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In October 2001, an Israeli delegation came to Washington with a mission to persuade the Bush Administration to authorize preparations for a strike against Iran. Initially, that task was well received but had to wait while the White House dealt with Afghanistan and then Iraq. [LINK]

Even before September 11, the Israelis had reportedly been trying to convince Russian President Putin to look the other way while action was taken against Iranian missile and nuclear programs, much of the technology for which had been acquired from Russia.

On August 13 2003, The Washington Post reported a full-court press on Bush to support Sharon's plans for a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear installations. Post writer Jim Hoagland described a "grim warning from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to President Bush that Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than U.S. intelligence believes . . ." U.S. intelligence had estimated Iran would need four years to process sufficient weapons grade material. Hoagland wrote:

"Sharon dramatized his forecast by bringing Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, a three-star army officer who serves as his military secretary, to a meeting with Bush in the Oval Office two weeks ago, U.S. and Israeli sources tell me. Galant showered a worried-looking Bush with photographs and charts from a thick dossier on Iran's covert program."

At that time of their last meeting in Washington on April 14, the two are reported to have again discussed the Iranian nuclear program, and Israeli plans to eliminate it through a preemptive strike on Iranian infrastructure and key personnel. [Haaretz, "Iran is top worry, Sharon to tell Bush"]

On April 22, "Bush told Republican congressional leaders during a meeting at the White House that it was all but certain that terrorists would attempt a major attack on the United States before the election, according to a congressional aide. The leaders were struck by Bush's definitiveness and gravity, the aide said..." (Washington Post, April 22, 2004).

Sharon's war counsel with Bush had its intended effect. On May 6, 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Resolution 398 in a 376-3 vote, calling on the U.S. government "to use all appropriate means to deter, dissuade, and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons." A similar resolution, if passed by the Senate, would hand the launch button to Bush.

On June 1, the U.S. Dept. of Defense announced plans to approve sales of $319 million worth of guided munitions to Israel. Most of this will be covered by U.S. foreign aid to Israel. On September 21, the Israelis acknowledged that shipment would include 500 "bunker buster" bombs, suitable for use against Iranian underground nuclear facilities and command centers. According to Reuters, Israel already possesses a more limited stockpile of F-15 launched GBU-27 or GBU-28 bombs, guided by lasers or satellites that can penetrate up to 30 feet of earth and concrete. [Reuters, 09/21/2004 08:32:09 "Eyeing Iran Reactors, Israel Seeks U.S. Bunker Bombs"]

On Wednesday, June 2, Sharon told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he and President George Bush agreed to a series of "strategic understandings" concerning Israel's posture in the Middle East. Sharon said the understandings offered by the Bush administration called for the prime minister to pledge to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. Reports state that the committees understood that Israel received a green light to finalize preparations for a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear targets. [, June 3, 2004] There is, of course, the possibility that reports of U.S. support for Israeli assault preparations are disinformation. Regardless, as Claude Salhani observes, the Bush-Sharon strategy of tension against Iran has completely failed if it is intended to persuade Tehran to give up its weapons program:

"Iraq's invasion served as the poster child for nuclear deterrence against unilateral military action from the world's remaining superpower. Repeated threats of regime change by the Bush administration have only increased Iran's fears that they could be next in line. President George W. Bush's campaign promise about "finishing the job," if re-elected in November, is a slogan that must keep more than one ayatollah awake at night-and pushing for nuclear deterrence."

Instead of providing real security, the Bush Administration's simple-minded strategy of preemptive attack has demonstrated the dangers of provocation, while showing the very real limitations of American power in the Middle East. It has served, above all else, to demonstrate the equally real danger of allowing the United States to be manipulated into actions that are contrary to the national interest.


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