Israel: Iran is now danger No. 1

US, Britain, France, and Germany threatened Iran on Monday with sanctions over its nuclear program.

Even as the US and European nations press Iran harder to comply with international law on its nuclear program, Israel is moving ahead with its own program to check its powerful Middle Eastern neighbor.

Israel is working on a wide range of measures to undermine Iran's nuclear program, with senior leaders hinting that Israel may take preemptive action if that is deemed necessary. Analysts here suggest that action may include a strike similar to Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor.

The Israeli initiative includes political, military, and intelligence wings of government and dovetails with US efforts to contain Iran within the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The effort reflects the widespread assessment here that Iran poses a greater threat than Iraq has for the past decade and is gaining nuclear expertise more quickly than the US estimates.

"Iran has a clandestine [nuclear] program that is very ambitious," says Uzi Arad, director of the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzilya. "That country thinks big and fast and ... poses a threat that is very real. Should it acquire nuclear weapons or even come close, it would completely alter the Middle East. It's a very ominous threat."

Analysts here argue that the prospect of a nuclear Iran would:

• Threaten Israeli, US, and European security.

*• Harden Arab positions in any future peace negotiations.

• Increase militancy and embolden hard-liners.

• Destabilize the Gulf area.

• And encourage other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Libya, to follow suit.

History of Iranian concealment

The US, Britain, France, and Germany say that Iran has been concealing nuclear research for the past 18 years in pursuit of nuclear weapons, despite signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970.

On Monday, the four nations agreed on a strongly worded IAEA resolution promoted by the US that threatens the possibility of UN sanctions should Iran continue to violate its agreements.

The US charges that Iran is also developing chemical and biological weapons, though the country is party to conventions curbing them. Furthermore, both the US and Israel say that Iran is trying to extend the range of its missiles, which could be used to develop such weapons.

Already, the 810-mile reach of Iran's Shahab-3 missile puts Israel and US forces in the region in striking range. The US charges that Iran will probably try to develop missiles capable of hitting Western Europe or the US itself.

Iran has admitted to concealing aspects of its atomic energy program, but says it is pursuing alternate energy sources, a claim the State Department dismissed as "simply not credible."

In testimony to the US-Israeli Joint Parliamentary Committee in September, State Department official Paula DeSutter said, "The impact of a nuclear-armed Iran in an already volatile region cannot be underestimated. As President Bush had made clear, that cannot be allowed to happen."

Israeli officials have echoed that declaration. In November, Israeli media reported that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, on a trip to Washington, told US officials that "under no circumstances would Israel be able to abide by nuclear weapons in Iranian possession."

'Existential threat' to Israel?

Meir Dagan, director of Israel's external intelligence agency, the Mossad, told a parliamentary committee this month that Iran posed an "existential threat" to Israel, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. He reportedly assured committee members that Israel could deal with this threat.

Like the US, Israel estimates that Iran is three to four years away from building a nuclear bomb. But Israel believes that in 2004, Iran will reach the point at which their nuclear program cannot be stopped.

On the same US trip, Mr. Mofaz told a pro-Israeli lobby group that a nuclear Iran was "intolerable."

"The implicit message of his statements was that if the Iranian nuclear program is not stopped in the next number of months, Israel will have to take action of its own - perhaps even to attack - to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into Iranian hands," analyst Amir Rappaport wrote in the Ma'ariv newspaper.

It would not be the first time Israel has taken preemptive action against a perceived threat. In 1981, Israeli fighter jets launched a successful surprise attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor, destroying it.

A push against Iran on all fronts

In the meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has upgraded Israel's efforts against Iran's nuclear program by putting all related committees under Mr. Dagan's command. Mr. Sharon himself will head a ministerial committee.

In this multipronged effort, Israel's foreign ministry will launch a diplomatic campaign to persuade other countries to work against Iran's nuclear program. The Mossad will work with foreign intelligence agencies, the National Security Council will work with the US-Israeli Joint Committee, and Israel's atomic energy body will focus on technical aspects of Iran's program and work with the IAEA.

Israel's concern about Iran stems from the country's proximity, its longstanding hostility to Israel, and its support for groups like Lebanese Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

While these groups launch attacks on Israel and its citizens with Iranian support, some analysts here say there remains the potential for direct confrontation between the nations of Iran and Israel.

Zeev Maghen, a senior research associate at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv who studies Iran, disagrees, but he acknowledges, "The amount of hostility that has built up in the world in general, and the Islamic world in particular, against my country might push someone over the edge."

"We're the pariah country," Mr. Maghen adds.

A nuclear Iran would also erode Israel's strategic edge. Israel's military, the world's 14th largest by budget, according to the Center for Defense Information, is vastly superior to any of its Middle East counterparts. Israel is also widely understood to have an arsenal of nuclear and other weapons, though officials deny this. It is not a signatory to the NPT.

"Israel has kept an ambiguous posture about this," says Mr. Arad, "but clearly, should Iran become nuclear, it would clearly be an adverse development. The country supports terrorism, has taken a militant line against the peace process, is hostile to the US, and is active in anti-American attacks [in Iraq]. It clearly poses a very serious threat to everybody."

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