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Shihab 3 Versus Ofek 5

Israel-Iran relations have taken on the familiar patterns of a cold war - a rejection of the opponent's ideology, a strategic arms race, deterrence and cautious brinkmanship, and diplomatic duels in international arenas.

Israel-Iran relations have taken on the familiar patterns of a cold war - a rejection of the opponent's ideology, a strategic arms race, deterrence and cautious brinkmanship, and diplomatic duels in international arenas.

While the superpowers, the United States and Russia, have signed an agreement to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, another round has taken place in the Middle East missile race. Iran tested its Shihab 3, which can hit Tel Aviv, and Israel launched its Ofek 5 satellite, which transmits photographs of Tehran and the nuclear reactor at Bushar. The rocket used to launch the satellite, the Shavit, is, say foreign reports, a long-range ballistic missile.

The Defense Ministry official who heads the satellite program, Haim Eshed, briefed the government's ministers this week on Ofek 5. According to the political echelon at the session, the satellite is, apparently, not only about collecting intelligence, but also about projecting Israeli power to its neighbors. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer spoke of "strengthening deterrence," while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon praised the project for proving "Israel's strengths and abilities."

That same day, the Foreign Ministry instructed its envoys overseas to speak out at every opportunity on the dangers of the Shihab 3, explaining that the Iranian missiles threaten not only the Middle East, but also world peace in general.

Israeli policy has had some achievements. Iran's missile and nuclear programs have encountered public opposition from the United States and are causing discomfort in Europe. Meanwhile, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Doug Feith said he hadn't heard about Ofek 5.

Over the last two years, there have been several international initiatives to halt the proliferation of ballistic missiles. Iran initiated the establishment of a UN group of experts on missiles, and Israel joined a Western initiative for the International Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, known as ICOC. Israel enjoys an advantage in this. More than a decade ago it promised it would not sell missile technology. Iran, on the other hand, is suspected of providing know-how and parts to Syria and Libya, and has provided Hezbollah in Lebanon with rockets than can reach Haifa.

The formulators of the ICOC proposed that every country undertake a policy of transparency, announcing ahead of time, as a confidence-building measure, when it is going to conduct a missile test. Israel believes this would impinge on its policy of deliberate ambiguity and has conducted a diplomatic campaign against the idea. The Israeli argument is that in tense regions, like the Middle East, announcements of missile launches are perceived as threats, not the opposite.

Pakistan's latest missile test was not designed to ease the tension with India, but rather as a deterrent. The practice in the Middle East is to keep quiet about missiles.

The two exceptions are Iran, which publicizes its Shihab tests, and Israel, which publicizes its satellite launches. Removing the cover of ambiguity, says Jerusalem, would require a regional agreement, or a strategic decision.

The French and British, have tried to help the Israeli argument in the debates over the code of conduct, and the current draft of the ICOC recognizes the need for regional agreements for confidence building. Iran demanded recognition of cooperation in civilian missile development, such as rockets for launching satellites, but was faced by stiff Israeli opposition, which said that this kind of cooperation would hollow out the limitations imposed on exporting missile technology since there was no real difference between civilian and military missile technology.

On June 17, representatives from dozens of countries will gather in Madrid to debate the final draft of the ICOC. Most of the reservations raised by Iran, the Arab countries and India have not been accepted and it appears that these countries will not join the new agreement. Israel is expected to stick to its opposition until conditions in the region change, but its overall positive attitude toward the ICOC strengthens its reputation as a responsible country.