February 16, 2007

Has the Countdown Begun, Part II

The US had seen in North Korea what happens if it avoids action inresponse to pressure from other countries co-operating with the US. North Korea has carried out a nuclear test and is now insisting thatany agreement it signs with the US and other powers would be as a nuclear power and not as a non-nuclear power.It is reportedly prepared to discuss a freezing of its military nuclear capability at its present level, but not its winding-up.

The US and Israel— Israel even more than the US—are determined toprevent a similar scenario in Iran. The price of inaction will beprohibitively high for Israel, endangering its future.

The US Congressional opinion—now dominated by the Democrats—is strongly opposed to Bush's Iraq policy. Its views on his Iranpolicy are much more nuanced. The likely opinion of the Jewishvoters in the US on the Iraq policy at the time of next year's Presidential elections would not be that important for the Presidential aspirants, but it would be in the case of Iran'snuclear designs. One could see evidence of it in the recent statements of Senator Hillary Clinton. She is not in favour of direct US military intervention in Iran, but at the same time shedoes not want to rule out the military option, should the worstcomes to the worst.

After a visit to the US in February last year, I had reported that there were three groups there—one group was totally opposed to any intervention in Iran. A second group urged intervention by the USbefore it became too late. The third group favoured intervention byIsrael with a US wink, without Washington getting directly involved. The third group seems to have won the debate.

Action to stop the acquisition of a military nuclear capability byIran is vital for Israel's security and very survival. The repeated anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements of President Ahmadinejad make it all the more important for Israel to disrupt, if not destroy,Iran's nuclear plans. For Israel, the question is not whether Iran has the intention to acquire a military nuclear capability.

The question is should Iran be allowed to have an infrastructure capable of being used for military nuclear purposes even if it doesnot have the intention at present to use it for military purposes.Once it is allowed to have the infrastructure, any time—clandestinely and at short notice—it would be able to acquire a military nuclear capability and confront Israel with a nuclearfait accompli.

Israel is determined not to allow this scenario to develop. Twoelements of Iran's existing infrastructure are key in this regard— the uranium hexafluoride plant at Isfahan and the uraniumenrichment plant at Natanz. Raiding and destroying or seriouslydamaging them would be a more complex operation than the Israeli raid on the French-aided Osirak reactor in Iraq in the early 1980s. Osirak had not yet been commissioned. The French engineers collaborated with Israel by keeping away from the reactor site atthe time of the raid.

Natanz and Isfahan are facilities, which have already been completed and are already in the production mode. There is a greater risk of heavy human casualties and possible environmental damage than therewas in Osirak. Iran is a strong military power, with an ability to retaliate against Israel. Iraq of Saddam Hussein was not in the early 1980s. Moreover, it had got involved in a military confrontation with Iran. Israel did not have to pay a price for theOsirak raid. There is a risk that it may have to if it raids Isfahan and Natanz.

Israelis have a reputation of not allowing fears of likelyconsequences deter any action by them which they consider necessaryfor their security and survival. An Israeli air strike on Natanz and Isfahan is very likely sooner than later. Things have started moving in that direction. The accumulation of US forces in the region is meant to deter any Iranian retaliation. Israel hopes Iran will notbe unwise enough to retaliate. If it does, Israel is prepared forit. Israel is confident of its ability to take on Iran—even if Teheran instigates the Hezbollah to step up attacks on Israel fromthe Lebanon.

It would be suicidal for Iran to think that the painful experienceof the US in Iraq and of Israel in the Lebanon in July last year has weakened their will to resort to military action, if theyconsider it necessary in their national interests. It has not.

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt.of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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