Analysis / A Rocket With a Camera

The loss yesterday of the Ofek-6 was an expensive engineering and security loss, but there's an even graver indirect cost than the loss of the capability, the time and the money.

The loss yesterday of the Ofek-6 was an expensive engineering and security loss, but there's an even graver indirect cost than the loss of the capability, the time and the money.

The planning failure that prevented the satellite from going into orbit could accelerate the escalation of tension between Israel and Iran and bring them closer to a military clash.

Israel chose, rather than was forced, to launch the satellite now. A reasonable alternative would have been to warehouse the missile and satellite and wait for Ofek-5 to outlive its usefulness. The wait would have saved the cost of the launch, but contained the risk of a temporary blindness in the lacuna between the demise of 5 and the launch of 6.

The recommendation that was finally accepted was not to leave the missile and satellite ready on the shelf. The gamble, or calculated risk, was not a success. Now the shelf is empty, and there is no certainty that a new satellite will be ready before Ofek-5 reaches its end.

The greatest threat to Israel, according to the current national security assessment, is a nuclear Iran. The hostility toward Israel from the zealous Islamic regime in Tehran is constant and demonstrative. External pressure, from the U.S. and Europe, through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council, could delay and obstruct the Iranian nuclear program, but Israel reckons that it won't completely prevent it and that some time between 2005 and 2007, Iran will have nuclear weapons.

There is, of course, a significant difference between the first bomb and operational capabilities, but all it would take is one warhead in Iranian hands to undermine Israel's deterrent capabilities and to grant a certain degree of immunity to Hezbollah and Syria, which could then provoke Israel through other means.

A satellite does not guarantee superior intelligence. Last year, before the Iraq War, Israel had no more specific information about Saddam Hussein's Scud launchers than any other countries. But without a satellite, when it comes to as secretive and skillfully deceptive a country as Iran, it will be difficult for Israel to track the pace of Iranian nuclear preparations to be equipped with missiles that carry nuclear warheads.

The window through which Israel is observing Iran, "the shutter of opportunity," could be closed precisely when the concern about what is happening in Iran reaches its climax. That would strengthen the arguments of those in Israel proposing a preemptive launch against Iran, and at the same time the voices in Tehran worried by such a blow would call for a preemptive strike against Israel. They'll say, as experts said after earlier launches of the Ofek, that it is essentially a missile with a camera.

As opposed to the third-stage failure, which involves the camera orbiting the earth, nothing went wrong in the first two stages and, in that sense, Israel conducted a successful test of a missile that under other circumstances would be ballistic. Thus, as opposed to the damage done to the intelligence deterence, through the loss of the satellite, missile deterrence remains.

Veteran Iran hands in Israel have been issuing particularly gloomy statements lately: It is impossible to stop the Iranian bomb, and at most one can hope for - or help arrange - a change in regime in Tehran. But both the regime and its opponents share the desire to acquire the bomb. It is a national ambition, anchored in Iran's view of itself as a regional power, which has the right to at least have the same weapons as Pakistan, India and, according to official U.S. documents, Israel.

That very same argument was heard from Israelis by the unwilling heros of the FBI investigation now underway in Washington, including Larry Franklin of the political department in the Pentagon. Franklin, his colleague, Harold Rod, and others visited Israel last December, took part in the Herzliya Conference, and among other experts had talks with Uri Lubrani, Israel's last ambassador to Iran in the waning days of the shah, who had warned of the shakiness of the regime at the time.

As opposed to the U.S. State Department and CIA, which are hanging their hopes on the efforts of the reformists in the Iranian regime, the Pentagon believes that a military action, American or Israeli, will be necessary against the Iranian bomb, which will threaten Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Americans in Iraq.

After the presidential elections, the Pentagon might support providing Israel with the huge "bunker busting" GBU 28 bomb, capable of penetrating deep underground storage spaces of weapons of mass destruction. The trend toward escalation in the Israel-Iranian conflict could speed up the reassessment of Israel's own policy of nuclear ambiguity. Three years ago, outside the government, Benjamin Netanyahu supported such a policy change. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly reprimanded him for it and the idea was shelved. But in light of Sharon's political weakness, Netanyahu now appears to be close to returning to a position where he could influence things in that direction.