A New Outlook on Iran's Nuclear Threat

The war on terror has transformed Tehran from U.S. headache to an ally.

If I were Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AOI), I would send a personal "thank you" note to Osama bin Laden, with a copy to Alexander Rumyantsev, the Nuclear Energy Minister of the Russian Federation, which supplies Iran's nuclear technology.

The new world order that has been born from the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington has provided both Moscow and Tehran with a solid-gold opportunity to warm up their relations with Washington and to accelerate the pace of their joint nuclear project. They need worry no more about pressure from the United States, which in any case found it extremely difficult to thwart Iran's plans for developing its own nuclear bomb.

If I were Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, I would be very worried by the blossoming relations between the two superpowers and by America's quiet rapprochement with Iran's regime of ayatollahs. Iran's project for the development of nuclear weapons constitutes the most grave threat to Israel's national security.

The accolades that American Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly showered on the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, in a speech he delivered last week, should be of far more concern to Sharon than any calls by Washington to end the Israeli occupation and to halt settlement building activity.

Putin was the first world leader to phone American President George W. Bush after the September 11 terror attacks and has rushed to reap the diplomatic dividends. Russian foreign policy has traditionally been based on ice-cold calculations surrounding both the balance of interests and the exploitation of strategic opportunities. This kind of thinking was evident in the agreement signed by the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin and Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler, which paved the way to the Second World War. The same brand of aggression-tipped cynicism is characteristic of Russia circa 2001.

A few days after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Iranian Defense Minister Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani arrived in Moscow to sign a major deal for the supply of conventional arms. The heart of the deal was an air defense system that would be stationed around the Iranian nuclear reactor being built in Bushehr. The U.S. registered no protest. About ten days ago, the Russians loaded parts of the reactor aboard a Tehran-bound ship. A spokesperson for the American State Department limited himself to the weak-kneed comment that the purportedly civilian reactor was actually a cover for an Iranian military program.

Putin celebrated his new friendship with America with a trip to Washington followed by a visit to Bush's ranch in Texas. In his public appearances, the Russian president spoke of the grave danger presented by the proliferation of non-conventional weapons and spoke extensively of his personal friendship with the State of Israel. At last month's Shanghai summit, he even came out openly against the Europeans who attacked Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinians active in the current intifada.

However, on one issue in which Russia can offer substantive assistance to Israel's national security - the termination of Moscow's dangerous ties with Tehran - Putin remains tight-lipped. According to American sources, in his talks with the Russian president, Bush stressed that he considered Russian aid to Iran a major area of concern. As reported by these same sources, Putin did not flinch a muscle, simply refusing to go into details or to promise anything.

The war in Afghanistan has also changed America's attitude toward Iran, which has suddenly been transformed from a major headache to a much sought-after ally in the struggle against both the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Washington has a long road ahead of it before it reaches a real rapprochement with Tehran and there is still a lot of bad blood in American-Iranian relations. Nonetheless, the Iranians could not avoid noticing America's willingness to accept Pakistan as a nuclear power the moment that a new strategic interest was created.

Israel is aware that an Iranian nuclear bomb is but one piece - and by no means the most important one - in the complex domino structure of the relationship between Washington and Moscow. Jerusalem's chief hope is that the superpowers will arrive at a comprehensive strategic deal in which Russia will agree to give up its burgeoning business activities with Iran in return for American concessions on matters that are far more critical in the Russian agenda.

Minister without Portfolio Dan Meridor, who is responsible for the secret services and national security in the Prime Minister's Office, has been appointed to deal with this particular issue. Meridor believes Israel must focus its efforts on trying to have an influence on the formation of America's agenda. This will be no easy task and, what is more, there is not much time left. According to American assessments, Iran could become a nuclear power within seven to nine years. According to Israeli assessments, Iran could reach that goal within four to five years. In the meantime, the neck-to-neck race is still in progress: Next month, American Under-Secretary of State John Bolton is scheduled to visit Jerusalem to continue discussions on the "trickle" of Russian nuclear know-how to Iran. During this same period, an Iranian delegation will be traveling to Moscow in order to conduct talks on the acquisition of an additional nuclear reactor.