Text size

If the American administration decides to go ahead with its original plan for fighting global terrorism after it has completed its military mission in Afghanistan, Iran will be one of the next targets. In the meantime, Washington has not pinpointed Iran as a target for an American offensive, although, behind closed doors, top officials express the view that Iran is a serious threat to the West.

After the September 11 terror attacks on America, those responsible for molding America's national security policy realized that the procurement of weapons of mass destruction by Middle Eastern nations is no longer a local issue whose ramifications are confined solely to the Middle East. In fact, a number of President George W. Bush's national security advisers have voiced their grave concern over the possibility of nuclear weapons being in the hands of Iran's leaders.

Until recently, Israel's attempts over the past decade to convince the American administration that it should take more energetic measures to prevent the leaking-out of missile and nuclear technology were unsuccessful. Former president Bill Clinton agreed to impose sanctions on a number of Russian manufacturing plants and laboratories that had transferred know-how to Iran; however, since he was determined to improve relations with Moscow, he did not exert too much pressure on the Kremlin.

Lately, now that it suddenly finds itself faced with a new and threatening reality, the U.S. administration has discovered that it might be too late to stop Iran's nuclear armament plans through diplomatic means. As if to drive the gravity of the problem home, Russia this week sent the first nuclear reactor to Iran's atomic energy station in Bushehr, where work has nearly been completed on the infrastructure needed for integrating the reactor into the station.

The data that are presently in the hands of Western intelligence agencies on Iran's armament plans are incomplete, although what is already known provides sufficient basis for the assessment that the Iranians are moving quickly in their nuclear weapons development program. In an interview that he gave a month ago to Le Figaro, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said, "By 2005, Iran might have the capacity for producing its first nuclear bomb."

Western experts who in the past tended to support Iran's position that its nuclear program was solely designed for peaceful purposes have recently changed their tune. At a conference held last week in Edinburgh and which was organized by Jane's, none of the participants quarreled with the view that the development of nuclear arms is a top-priority item on Tehran's agenda.

As Iran sees things, it has every justification to arm itself with weapons of mass destruction in order to protect its national security. According to the Iranians, their country is surrounded by states - some of which are its enemies - that either already have nuclear weapons or are in the process of developing them: Russia to the north, Iraq and Israel to the west, the United States with its nuclear fleet patroling the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to the south, and India and Pakistan to the east. The Iranian regime is very concerned over the military alliance between Israel and Turkey, as well as over the tightening of Israel's ties with Azerbaijan.

After the Iran-Iraq war ended, the Iranian president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, declared in 1988 that, in view of the lessons that had been learned after Iraq's use of chemical weapons in that confrontation, Iran had no recourse but to "supply itself to the hilt - for both defensive and offensive purposes - with chemical, biological and nuclear arms."

In 1992, Iran's vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs, Dr. Seyyed Ayatollah Mohajerani, announced that, "seeing that Israel is still in the possession of nuclear weapons, we Muslims must unite for the purpose of manufacturing a nuclear bomb."

Since the early 1990s, Iran has been making strenuous efforts to advance its nuclear program, which is based on an agreement with Russia for the construction of two nuclear reactors in Bushehr. The agreement was signed in the mid-1990s. Iran is pulling out all the stops to obtain the know-how, materials and equipment needed to develop nuclear weapons through clandestine agreements, secret deals and smuggling activities.

Judging from the data presented at the conference in Scotland, Iran - in addition to its nuclear program - is at work developing no less than nine different missile projects, which are based on cooperation with Russia, China and North Korea. Of these programs, the ones that are cause for the greatest alarm are its projects for the Shihab 3 (which is based on North Korea's No-Dong missile and which has a range of 1,300 kilometers), the Shihab 4 (which is based on Russia's SS4 and which has a range of over 2,000 kilometers), and the Shihab 5 (which is based on either Russia's SS5 or North Korea's Taepo Dong and which has a range of 4,000 kilometers).

All three models of the Shihab can carry a nuclear warhead. The Shihab 3 is already operational, although it has not yet been fitted with a nuclear warhead. The range of the Shihab 3 enables the missile to hit any target within Israel.

Even though Iran is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has so far refused to ratify two new amendments in the Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These two amendments are aimed at making it tougher for signatory-States to conceal suspected nuclear activities from IAEA inspectors, who are in charge of monitoring the nuclear facilities of those countries that are signatories to the NPT. Iran's refusal to ratify the amendments is, of course, generating fears concerning Iran's true motives in the nuclear field. These fears are being augmented by the fact that, over the past decade, Iran has attempted to acquire - and may even have succeeded in acquiring in some instances - enriched uranium, nuclear research reactors and the technology needed for plutonium separation and for uranium enrichment.

Israel's policy-makers, who have consistently warned of the danger posed by Iran's armament activities, can only hope that Bush will stick to his guns and that, in accordance with his various declarations, he will continue with his war on global terrorism.

The fact that Iran is still on the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism will certainly provide the administration in Washington with an excellent excuse for "taking care" of Iran in the future. In light of the information that has recently been gathered on Iran and of the change in America's perception of the potential nuclear danger in the Middle East, it seems reasonable to assume that the United States' real target will be to destroy Iran's infrastructure for the development of nuclear weapons, rather than to bring an end to Tehran's support of Hezbollah.