Israel raises profile in Iran fray

Israeli satellite will monitor Iran's nuclear program, which faces a UN deadline Friday.

Amid the soaring rhetoric over Western efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program, Israel has been moving into a more proactive position in the campaign to contain Tehran.

This week, Israel launched a satellite to spy on Iran, and its leaders have called on the international community to stop that country from acquiring nuclear weapons. It also accused Tehran of backing Palestinian terrorists.

And as concern here grows over Iran's defiant nuclear drive, one of Israel's leading newspapers reported Thursday that Iran has purchased ground-to-ground missiles from North Korea, extending its range for delivering warheads.

"The Israelis are making a statement that Israel has its own ways and means of defending itself," says Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv.

Given the charged atmosphere in the region, many have questioned whether Israel, which maintains its own unofficial nuclear program, would make some kind of "preemptive strike" on Iran.

In 1981, Israel struck the nuclear reactor Iraq was developing, known as Osirak. Though criticized at the time, Israeli officials say they were later thanked for neutralizing Iraq's nuclear capabilities.

Today, however, the Middle East is quite different, say analysts and officials here, and Iran's pursuit to enrich uranium, which it says is for peaceful purposes, is seen as an international issue, not a local one.

Somewhat akin to years of crisis over Iraq's weapons program, Israel has been encouraged to take a backseat in the standoff with Iran. In 1991, Israel complied with US requests not to respond to Iraqi missile attacks. Through quieter channels, however, Israel has long been making the case against an armed Iran.

But, analysts say, recent changes in the region have led to a more vocal Israel, from US frustration with Iran's meddling in Iraq to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inflammatory statements - he calls for Israel to be destroyed and denies the Holocaust occurred.

"The Israeli government before the elections was taking a more moderate line. It was an uncertain period: Ariel Sharon was sick, elections were looming," says Mr. Javedanfar, the director of Meepas, a political analysis company. "[Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert feels more secure now and feels that the international community is standing by Israel. This wasn't so much the case during the intifada, but it's changing, particularly since Iran was given a 30-day period to stop uranium enrichment and they say they won't."

Those 30 days end Friday, the deadline for the International Atomic Energy Agency to submit its report on Iran to the UN Security Council. The report is expected to be highly critical of Iran for refusing the council's request to freeze uranium enrichment.

While Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says Israel has no interest in a one-on-one confrontation with Iran, he says, "We do have clear concerns. We are supporting united, international efforts on this issue."

The launch of the Eros-B spy satellite by Israel Aircraft Industries on Tuesday, Mr. Regev says, is a part of a long-term intelligence effort that is not tied to recent tension. And some of the official statements made about Iran during the course of the week were issued as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a day when Israelis reflect on their survival, and this year conversations often turned to Ahmadinejad's threats from the east.

"I call on the Western world to not stand silently in the face of the nations that are trying to acquire nuclear weapons and [who] preach the destruction of the State of Israel," Israeli President Moshe Katsav said in his annual address at the country's main Holocaust museum and memorial, Yad Vashem.

On the same day, Israel's outgoing defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said that Iran had given close to $10 million to "terror groups" operating in the Palestinian territories since the start of the year. He also suggested that more should be done to encourage the demise of the current regime.

"The Iranian people need to know that the regime's efforts to lead global terror will negatively affect them," Mr. Mofaz said at the opening of the Center for Iranian studies at Tel Aviv University. "More can be done from outside Iran to raise the Iranian people's awareness that the current regime will bring destruction on them." Both Mofaz and Katsav are Iranian-born Israelis.

Thursday's report in the newspaper Haaretz, which said that Iran had acquired a ground-to-ground missile with a range of about 1,560 miles was viewed here as fresh proof that Iran's atomic program is not simply aimed at creating nuclear energy for civilian uses.

"The problem is Tehran is not just a nuclear power, but that they're working on delivery systems," says Regev, of the Foreign Ministry. "With the parallel track on their delivery systems, we can see that their program is not benign."

Gary Sick, an expert on Iranian affairs at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, says that both the Iranians and Israelis have made statements recently that have turned up the heat to uncomfortable levels.

He aruges that the West's pursuit of a military option can only make things worse. "If there were a strike of some sort against Iran, it would certainly drive them underground, make them become more secretive, and they would drop out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran will say, 'We weren't planning a bomb before, but now we have no choice,' " Dr. Sick says.

"What I do worry about in this whole process," he adds, "is that there will be some unexplained incident that happens deliberately or not deliberately, that will be perceived wrongly by one side or the other - that's how WWI got started."

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