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Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz last week spoke to listeners on Israel Radio's Persian language station, which transmits to Iranian citizens who do not support the Islamic revolutionary regime in Tehran. The station seeks to encourage Iranian elements who would like to see a moderate leadership in Tehran that would, among other things, cease to meddle in the Israeli-Arab conflict.

To this purpose, the station hosts high-ranking Israelis of Persian descent, including President Moshe Katsav. Iranian-born Mofaz, was also a crowd-puller, and was asked numerous questions on political and security matters.

Responding to one listener's concerns about an Israeli operation against Iran's nuclear facilities that would cause harm to innocent civilians in the vicinity of the attack, Mofaz said that in such a strike, if carried out, Israel would make sure not to cause civilian casualties.

In a decade and more of Israeli statements on the question of the Iranian threat, this has been the most virulent yet - moreover, it was made to an Iranian target audience, and it shows that the defense establishment is busy making plans for a military operation against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Mofaz's intentions were, so it appears, to ease the concerns of the questioner and others who feel the same. The assumption that the defense minister had no interest in escalating the tensions in the Israel-Iran relations is based also on his restrained responses to other questions on similar issues, speaking of a desire to rehabilitate the ties between the two peoples - the Israeli and the Iranian - and noting that Israel will respond if attacked.

Whatever the intentions of the defense minister may have been, the results of the way he expressed them are regrettable. This is a further escalation in the Israeli warnings vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear program, following sharp, yet more vague, expressions about Israel's unwillingness to accept the nuclearization of Iran and its determination to undermine or sabotage it.

Mofaz's statements were indeed similar in spirit, but in the arena of international relations, minutiae also carry weight, and the defense minister's words constituted the crossing of the fine line that runs between strongly protesting the policy of a foreign government and an offensive threat. And this, almost certainly, is how his words will be interpreted on the Iranian side.

Israel's concerns about Iran's strategic strengthening, coupled with its terror activities through Hezbollah and various Palestinian organizations, are not unfounded. Iran's actions are a danger to the security of Israel, and Tehran openly declares that alongside the United States, Israel is an enemy and a missile target. If the Iranian missiles are armed with nuclear warheads, they will constitute an existential threat to Israel.

A concerted global effort - led by the Americans, in partnership with Europe and with the help of the International Atomic Energy Agency - is underway to undermine this danger and put into practice Bush's policy against the proliferation of nuclear arms.

Iran has no desire to exaggerate in its taunting of the Bush administration, which has proved in Iraq and Afghanistan that it does not flinch from military measures. It would be best for Israel to monitor the extent of success of the global efforts and to tone down the threatening statements of its senior officials.