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Iran's suspected military nuclear program and threats against Israel are a cause of concern for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Israel is "not isolated" on this issue, according to NATO Deputy Secretary General Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo. In an interview with Haaretz during his visit here last week, the veteran Italian diplomat also said that NATO avoided international involvement in the Lebanon crisis because it "is not the global policeman." He added that its future role in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is conditioned on both parties requesting it, as well as on a UN mandate.

Ambassador Minuto-Rizzo, NATO's most senior official after Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, was keynote speaker at a conference organized by NATO and the Atlantic Forum of Israel - an advocacy group that works to bring Israel closer to membership in the alliance. NATO officials praised the forum's efforts, but pointed out that the Israeli government has yet to make up its mind regarding its policy preference on this issue. For all practical purposes, Israel is enjoying many of the benefits of a close relationship with NATO without taking on the burdens of mutual defense commitments, said the officials. Decision-making in NATO requires consensus by all 26 member states, some of whom are not Israel's best friends; by the same token Israel may find itself less than keen on sending an Israel Defense Forces' contingent to "help Estonia," if called on to do so under its treaty obligations.

Minuto-Rizzo praised his meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and briefings by senior officials at her Ministry and IDF Plans and Policy chief, Major-General Ido Nehushtan. But alliance sources were puzzled by Defense Minister Amir Peretz's inability to find any time on his schedule for a meeting with NATO's second-highest official.

Evading a direct response to a question about whether NATO considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, Minuto-Rizzo replied that, "with regard to a definition of terrorism, others such as the UN are directly debating this issue. We, of course, strongly condemn any act of terrorism, but NATO is not the global policeman. NATO does not automatically act when a terrorist attack is perpetrated anywhere in the world. This is not NATO's role. NATO is a multilateral international security organization where the decision to act is taken by the governments of the alliance [member states] by consensus, when our interests are at stake. At the 2004 Istanbul summit, NATO decided to fight terrorism through effective intelligence sharing and maritime cooperation, including in the framework of Operation Active Endeavor." The latter is an anti-terrorist, naval activity in which Israel is about to take part as the first Mediterranean Dialogue country.

Noted Minuto-Rizzo: "Israeli liaison officers will be assigned to the NATO command structure (in Naples) at the operational and tactical level and through the participation of military personnel and assets."

As for Lebanon, "NATO was not asked to address this crisis. NATO has certainly the technical capabilities to manage crises. There is at present a UN-mandated operation. However, NATO countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, Norway, Poland and Spain have deployed troops under this UN-mandated operation. In assisting Lebanon, these country members of the alliance draw from the experience gained through their several years of military training and cooperation in NATO, including through their previous participation in NATO-led operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Afghanistan."

What should Israel, NATO and the West do vis-a-vis Iran?

Minuto-Rizzo: "NATO is certainly supporting the current efforts by the international community - the efforts by China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, the United States, the EU high representative, the UN efforts, with regard to this issue. From time to time we also discuss on a political level the situation in the Middle East. We are therefore fully aware of the developments in the region. Of course, ... [as long as] Iran pursues nuclear energy for peaceful purposes it will be all right. It would be logical for the government of Iran to have better economical development for its people, but certainly not a military nuclear capability. The situation is now being debated again in the United Nations, following UN Security Council Resolution 1696 of last July and following the efforts by the international community, aimed at addressing international concerns over Iran's nuclear program and to provide the basis for long-term political and economic cooperation with Iran. That includes, according to the June proposal by the six countries and the European Union, cooperation to develop a modern civil-nuclear power industry through a long-term agreement. We still hope that some kind of solution in this direction will be found in the end."

Israel's very existence is being directly threatened. Is NATO concerned about this threat?

"NATO is, of course, concerned about this issue of Israel. In the case of the Iranian nuclear development, Israel is not isolated. Israel is on the same side as the other actors of the international community. Because, clearly, it is not only a problem concerning Israel, but it concerns the whole international community, otherwise the UN secretary general and the EU high representatives would not be actively involved in finding a solution."

Italy, Belgium [where NATO is headquartered] and other European countries could soon to be within range of Iran's missiles and nuclear warheads. NATO must be concerned about this threat, too.

"As I said, the fact that there could be the development of a potential new nuclear military capability in the region is a concern as such for the whole international community and, of course, also for the NATO allies."

What is the significance of the Individual Cooperation Program agreed to on October 16 in Brussels between NATO and Israel?

"At their Istanbul summit, NATO's heads of state and government decided to offer Mediterranean Dialogue partner countries the possibility to agree with NATO Individual Cooperation Programs and to contribute to Operation Active Endeavor, in the context of the More Ambitious and Expanded Framework for the Mediterranean Dialogue approved at the summit. Earlier this month the allies were very pleased to finalize with Israel the Individual Cooperation Program (ICP) under the enhanced Mediterranean Dialogue. This is a far-reaching document, which includes very important practical areas of cooperation such as response to terrorism, intelligence sharing, crisis management, nuclear-biological-chemical defense, airspace management control, military exercises and arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation."