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Threats Against Iran Escalate

The threat of military attack against Iran has continued to escalate as the European Union this week conceded to pressure from the US to implement stricter sanctions against Iran for refusing to cease from enriching uranium for its nuclear program.

Earlier this week, Israeli transport minister Shaul Mofaz threatened, “If Iran continues with its programme for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it. The sanctions are ineffective. Attacking Iran, in order to stop its nuclear plans, will be unavoidable.”

The Office of US Vice President Dick Cheney is reportedly in favor of military strikes against Iran, and President Bush has repeatedly described an attack as an “option” that he is keeping “on the table”. Leading officials and military experts at the Pentagon, on the other hand, have reportedly been opposed to attacking Iran, and the State Department is said to favor a diplomatic approach.

When Bush made a comment while speaking before the Israeli Knesset last month likening talk of engaging Iran diplomatically with the appeasement of Hitler, it was widely interpreted to be an attack against presidential candidate Barak Obama.

“Some seem to believe we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals,” Bush said, “as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

But Bush’s remark was more likely directed against members of his own administration. An Israeli Army Radio report cited a government official who spoke with a member of Bush’s entourage during his visit to Israel who said that Bush had made up his mind to attack Iran before the end of his term, but that “the hesitancy of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice” was preventing the administration from launching an attack.

The Bush administration denied that it had decided to attack Iran, but the substance of the report is hard to dismiss. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has advocated engaging Iran diplomatically. In 2004, Gates co-authored a report for the Council on Foreign Relations entitled “Iran: Time for a New Approach” that favored engagement. He was also a member of the 2006 Iraq Study Group which likewise recommended a diplomatic approach.

Immediately following Bush’s speech to the Knesset, Gates seemed to back away from calls for diplomacy and and rebuffed calls for engagement with Iran. Earlier this month, Rice gave a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in which she effectively ruled out talking to Iran, saying, “We would be willing to meet with them but not while they continue to inch toward nuclear weapons under the cover of talks. The real question isn’t why won’t the Bush administration talk to Iran. The real question is why won’t Iran talk to us.” She added, “For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”

Iran has repeatedly called on Washington to engage in discussions not only about its nuclear program, but on working towards a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, calls which have been rebuffed by the US, probably in no small part because any such talks would inevitably include a focus on Israel, the only nation in the region armed with nuclear weapons.

European Union member nations also agreed this week to join the US in employing even more stringent sanctions against Iran, going beyond existing UN sanctions, after a visit to Europe from President Bush.

Julianne Smith of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained the decision by saying, “I think this was a European attempt to show the Bush administration that Europe takes the threat seriously and to try to continue to prevent a situation where Israel or the United States might turn to the military instrument.”

Iran responded to the announcement about increased sanctions by withdrawing huge sums of its foreign exchange reserves from European banks. Last year, Iran abandoned the US dollar as the currency for oil trading in favor of the Japanese yen.

Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar responded to the latest Israeli threat to attack the country for continuing its nuclear program by saying, “Our armed forces are at the height of their readiness and if anyone should want to undertake such a foolish job the response would be very painful.”

The US is demanding that Iran cease from enriching uranium despite the fact that Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which guarantees its right to enrich uranium for nuclear energy. The Bush administration has continually accused Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon.

A US national intelligence estimate from November 2007 alleged that Iran had been working on building a nuclear weapon, but that its weapon program was ended in 2003. The IAEA has repeatedly stated that there is no solid evidence of an existing weapon program.

Iran insists its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes only and insists on its right, guaranteed under the NPT, to enrich uranium for fuel in its nuclear energy program, and has called UN resolutions implementing sanctions and calling on Iran to cease uranium enrichment “illegal”. Indeed, the NPT states that nothing may prejudice members’ rights to continue with research and development, including uranium enrichment, while IAEA inspections and monitoring and verification efforts are underway.

IAEA Secretary General Mohamed El Baradei spoke out against the threats of force, noting that “With unilateral military actions, countries are undermining international agreements”. He criticized Israel’s destruction of what is alleged to have been a nuclear facility under construction in Syria in September of last year, saying that Israel and the US should have brought their intelligence to the UN to be dealt with through the Security Council, rather than taking unilateral military action, in accordance with their obligations under the UN Charter and international law.

Last month, Mr. El Baradei said, “We haven’t seen indications or any concrete evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon and I’ve been saying that consistently for the last five years.” The most recent report on Iran’s program from the IAEA, released the week after Mr. El Baradei’s above statement, noted that “The Agency has been able to continue to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran.” The IAEA’s previous report had noted significant progress in verifying the peaceful nature of Iran’s program and concluded that several areas where there had been concern we no longer outstanding.

Iran responded to Israel’s threat by noting, correctly, that “Such a dangerous threat against a sovereign state and a member of the United Nations constitutes a manifest violation of international law and contravenes the most fundamental principles of the Charter of the United Nations”, and requested a response from the UN.

Israel is the only nuclear-armed country in the Middle East. Although it has never officially acknowledged that it has nuclear weapons, it is believed to possess at least several hundred of them. Unlike Iran, Israel has never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

In addition to bombing the site in Syria, Israel also bombed a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, and action which U.S. intelligence believed resulted in Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program going underground and precipitated an increased desire for Iraq to try to obtain a nuclear weapon.

A CIA intelligence assessment of that attack said it “could be a watershed event in the Middle East”. It said that “Rather than drawing [Arab leaders] into a negotiating process, Israel’s demonstrated process will only speed the arms race. Tel Aviv has made the point that it will not allow an Arab state to develop a nuclear weapons capability. In the absence of US restraint on Israel, Arab leaders will intensify their search for alternative ways to boost their security and protect their interests…”

“The nuclear issue alone has far-reaching implications,” the report continued. “Development of a nuclear weapons option is now part of the public debate in the Middle East. Former Defense Minister Dayan has dispelled the ambiguity that surrounded Israel’s nuclear program by acknowledging Israel’s capability to produce nuclear weapons, and the raid on Iraq has led Tel Aviv’s challenge before the Arab world in clear terms. Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein responded by suggesting that world governments provide the Arabs with a nuclear deterrent to Israel’s formidable nuclear capabilities. His message to other Arabs is that they can have no security as long as Israel alone commands the nuclear threat.”

The consequences of Israel’s attack “have been along predictable lines,” said the CIA, including “damage to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to the IAEA safeguards system”, which “will probably have a detrimental impact.”

“Arab anger,” the report added, “will be directed at the United States for being responsible for Israel’s ascendancy…. Arab leaders will claim even more forcefully than before that Israeli aggression and frustrated Palestinian aspirations are the central issues causing instability and that the United States holds the key to both.”

The threat to Iran this week coincided with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s trip to Washington, where he met with President Bush to discuss the matter of Iran. The meeting was expected to be about the possibility of using military force in response to Iran’s nuclear program.

According to the Washington Post, “Olmert is expected to use his White House visit…to push President Bush to take a more aggressive approach toward Iran — and there are some signs that he’ll have a receptive audience.” According to a report in the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, Olmert would try to convince Bush of the need to attack Iran. Olmert had said that there was an “urgent need for more drastic and robust measures” than sanctions. The Israeli paper Haaretz said that “Olmert will try to convince Bush to set aside the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program in favor of data presented by Israel, and determine the administration’s policy on Iran accordingly.” This was confirmed by White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who said, “Israel has made it clear that they think…that intelligence is wrong, and that Iran is still pursuing a nuclear weapon.”

Bush declared Iran to be “an existential threat to peace.” Asked whether the US would sanction military strikes against Iran, Bush responded that he “would never take any options off the table”. Bush has also suggested that the Israeli bombing of the alleged Syrian nuclear site was a “message to Iran”.

Olmert came away from the meeting saying that he had “fewer questions” about how to deal with Iran, and that “every day we are making real strides towards dealing with this problem more effectively.” He said, “The international community has a duty and responsibility to clarify to Iran, through drastic measure, that the repercussions of their continued pursuit of nuclear weapons.

JEREMY R. HAMMOND can be reached at: jrhammond001@hotmail.com

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