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Angela Merkel's new government will be sworn in today in Berlin; and today will also see the signing of the agreement for the supply of two German-built Dolphin submarines to the Israel Navy.

In her meetings with the outgoing chancellor ahead of taking over the reins of power, the chancellor-elect added her stamp of approval to the Germany-Israel submarine sale deal ironed out by Gerhard Schroeder. In an interview with the Haaretz weekend supplement prior to the German elections, Merkel alluded to the fact that if voted in, she would support the deal; undoubtedly nevertheless, in approving the sale, she is conveying a clear message as to the strength of the defense ties between the two countries.

There is a large degree of symbolism that the report on the completion of the submarine deal comes at a time when the international community's efforts to undermine Iranian endeavors to develop nuclear arms are reaching the moment of truth - this, due to the direct link between the Israel Navy's procurement of Dolphin-model submarines and the Iranian nuclear program.

On the eve of the first Gulf War, in 1990, the Israel Defense Forces' General Staff decided to scrap the navy's submarine project. The decision, promoted by then- deputy chief of staff Ehud Barak, determined that future missions and expected threats do not warrant submarines.

The decision was a rather perplexing one, because it was already clear then that it was highly probable that one, or more, of the hostile states in the region was likely to build up a nuclear arsenal. As it emerged during the Cold War period, the development of a second-strike capability is the most effective deterrent in the face of a nuclear threat - in other words, the development of weapons systems that the enemy cannot destroy even if it launches a surprise nuclear strike.

Submarines, as the two superpowers learned, offer the most reliability when its comes to second-strike capability. They are difficult to locate, and even more difficult to hit.

Fortunately, the German government, whose high-ranking members were agonized by their consciences after learning that German companies had helped Iraq to develop chemical weapons, decided to give Israel two submarines, of the same model whose development was scrapped by the General Staff.

The Israel Navy received the first Dolphin submarine in 1999, and it was decided then to purchase a third submarine, with part of the cost borne by the German government.

Foreign sources say that Israeli officials have decided to use the submarines to develop a second-strike capability, and as a result, the vessels have been equipped with nuclear missiles. The problem is that in keeping with standard naval practice around the world, only one submarine out of three can remain at sea on a continuous basis. The remaining two, meanwhile, will be undergoing maintenance work. The acquisition of the additional submarines will allow the Israel Navy to have two submarines out at sea on a permanent basis, and thereby significantly boost Israel's deterrent reliability in the face of a nuclear enemy.

As developments in our region indicate, this nuclear enemy could be Iran. On Thursday, the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will hold a highly important discussion on whether to entrust the Iranian issue to the UN Security Council. The meeting will be a critical test for the IAEA - known as "the UN's nuclear watchdog" - which until now has not demonstrated any special determination in dealing with countries that violate the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to which Iran is also a signatory.

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei was indeed awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year, but he appears to join a long line of laureates whose work, after having received the award, falls short of warranting it.

ElBaradei is perpetuating the unglamorous tradition of his predecessor, Hans Blix, who, on the eve of the first Gulf War, published a report about Iraq in which he lauded Saddam Hussein's regime for diligently adhering to the terms of the NPT.

It emerged shortly after the end of the war, however, that Iraq was a mere six months away from completing the development of a nuclear bomb. ElBaradei, too, in a report published ahead of the meeting of the Board of Governors, praises Iran for its cooperation with the IAEA, and only halfheartedly notes that it must continue to hand over information and documents pertaining to its nuclear activities. And all this at a time when the Iranians are denying IAEA inspectors access to nuclear sites, and after the uncovering of many instances in which Iran has concealed information on activities prohibited under the terms of the treaty.

A decision by the IAEA not to hand over the matter to the Security Council would constitute a negative signal on the part of the international community, and will give Iran even more time to make fun of the IAEA inspectors. Western intelligence agencies are indeed divided when it comes to the question of when Iran will cross the point of no return, and will no longer be dependent on outside elements to complete the development of the bomb, but all concur that it won't be long.

Indeed, a nuclear Iran is not a heartwarming vision; but the right kind of preparations on the part of Israel in the face of the expected threat could neutralize it. The acquisition of the two additional German submarines is an important step in the right direction.