An Asymmetrical Threat

Today, Iran can deal Israel painful conventional blows, organize terror attacks in Israel and abroad, and hurl massive volleys of rockets toward its population centers.

"Min Hateror Ad Hagarin: Mashmauto Shel Ha'iyum Ha'irani" ("From Terror to Nuclear Bombs: The Significance of the Iranian Threat") by Ephraim Kam, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and the Israeli Ministry of Defense Publishing House, 518 pages, NIS 89

On January 26, 1993, the strategic Iranian nuclear threat was first recognized by an Israeli prime minister - the late Yitzhak Rabin. The recognition was expressed in his response to a proposal I submitted in writing for an item to be included in the Knesset's agenda. However, several years would pass before Israel's political and military communities would recognize the threat's existence. Those who warned of the Iranian threat - this group included Major General Amos Gilad, Uri Lubrani, a consultant to the defense minister, and myself - were attacked as panic-mongerers and saber-rattlers interested in igniting wars beyond Israel's immediate borders.

Today, the Iranian threat is recognized by the entire international community: not just the United States but also the member-states of the European Union. The publication of "From Terror to Nuclear Bombs: The Significance of the Iranian Threat," by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Defense Publishing House is, in itself, the acknowledgment of the threat's gravity by the Israeli academic establishment. Since this same academic community has traditionally tended to underestimate the danger that Khomeini Iran poses to Israel, the very name of Dr. Ephraim Kam, a veteran intelligence expert and a highly respected scholar, and the aegis of the Jaffee Center, give the book weight and extend to it an aura of serious-mindedness and responsibility.

The book's 518 pages contain the most detailed documentation so far on the development of Iran's military power and include an analysis of the motives behind that country's strategy. There are some 1,200 references and notes, which give the contents of his book a solid factual validity. Nevertheless, Kam's style is cautious and balanced. He moves along the thin demarcation line that separates the illusions of the complacent from the militancy of the alarmed. Although he neither dulls the sharp edges of the Iranian threat nor underestimates the threat's danger, he does not rule out the realistic possibility that this danger could diminish, even if only slightly.

What he principally does is to provide the Iranian threat in its broader regional context. In Iranian eyes, Israel is not the chief or even the most immediate enemy. Iran has traditional and solidly based interests, linked to its status in the Persian/Arabian Gulf and to its immediate neighbors, especially Iraq. However, this analysis, which places the threat to Israel in its proper proportions, does not conceal the fact that hostility to Israel and the denial of its legitimate right to exist are the religious and ideological mainstay of the perception of the present regime in Iran.

While Kam admits that Iran's strategy and the military build-up dictated by that strategy are principally defensive in nature, he emphasizes the possibility that Iran's military might, expressed in conventional and nonconventional weaponry, could be deployed in an offensive operation against Israel. Kam explains that the very existence of Iran's nuclear power, even if it is not actually utilized, could still provide "strategic support" for fanatical and highly determined anti-Israel forces.

Since the publication of Ephraim Kam's book, there have been a number of developments that have enlarged the scope of the Iranian threat and made Iranian animosity more tangible and more lethal. According to the testimony of the present head of the IDF's Military Intelligence branch, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi (Farkash), 90 percent of the terrorist attacks launched over the past few months by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military arm of Fatah-Tanzim, have been targeted and funded by Iranian emissaries. This is a strategic trend, in which Iran is acquiring yet another effective means of hurting Israel, undermining its morale and attaining the capability of disrupting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, should they be renewed (much to Iran's displeasure).

The second development is the additional disclosure of the Iranian network of rockets and missiles deployed in southern Lebanon. This arsenal of 12,000 rockets and missiles includes hundreds of long-range rockets capable of reaching as far as Hadera, which means that they can easily reach the Haifa Bay area and cities in northern Israel.

Iran's influence in Iraq

The third development is Iran's creeping influence in Iraq in the post-Saddam era. Apparently, no matter what political regime ultimately emerges in Iraq, Iran will exert considerable influence in the Shiite part of Iraq at the very least. Iraq has attained this measure of influence by the infiltration of a large number of agents into Iraqi territory through the Al-Quds and Bader groups and by the penetration of its representatives into Iraq's interim council and into the immediate milieu of dominant Shiite clergy. When the American presence in Iraq diminishes, the full extent of Iran's foothold there will be revealed. That foothold will vastly increase the political and strategic clout of the current regime in Tehran.

The fourth development is linked to the results of Iran's parliamentary elections last February. The conservatives' sweeping victory, which was obtained through the wholesale invalidation of reformist candidates, has removed the sole base of reformist politicians in Iran. The weak position of Mohammed Khatami, the country's reformist president, was exposed when he proved unable to prevent the invalidations. The fact that the election results did not generate widespread public protest indicates how little faith the Iranian people has in Khatami and in the prospects of bringing about any real change in Iran through parliamentary means.

This last development throws cold water on any hopes that the Iranian regime will become moderate as long as the radical ayatollahs still hold sway. It also removes the only prospect Kam points to for the suspension of Iran's nuclear program. According to Kam, the "policy of critical dialogue" of the European states, which thought that this approach could stop Iran from reaching military nuclear capability and could lead it to introduce reforms in its regime, has proven a "total failure." He believes that, despite its many setbacks, America's policy of containment vis--vis Iran has managed to slow down Tehran's nuclear plans. In his estimate, "if the moderate forces in Iran's political system can enhance their position and if a profound dialogue can open up with the American administration before Iran acquires nuclear weapons," there will be a window of opportunity for Iran's volitional suspension of its nuclear program and for a significant change in the Iranian threat. Since the prospects for any moderation in the Iranian regime appear slim today, it seems likely that a strong wave of popular opposition to the regime will emerge, taking the form of a revolutionary act that will bring about a substantive political change.

Kam's book does not offer a recommendation for any Israeli action aimed at thwarting the Iranian threat. There is no recommendation for the construction of a solution that could end the asymmetry between Israel and Iran. Today, Iran can deal Israel painful conventional blows, organize terror attacks in Israel and abroad, and hurl massive volleys of rockets toward its population centers. Israel's decision-makers would be well advised to read this book carefully. It just might push them to take action.

Labor MK Dr. Ephraim Sneh has served as health minister, deputy defense minister and transportation minister. He currently chairs the Knesset Subcommittee on Defense Planning and Policy.