Israel sounds alarm on Iran's nuclear efforts

The Jewish state warns of a second Holocaust if nations fail to prevent Tehran from acquiring the bomb.

By Richard Boudreaux

Los Angeles Times

February 7, 2007

JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders rarely invoke the Holocaust in the face of enemies. The Jewish homeland founded after Adolf Hitler's genocide has, for the last generation, felt secure enough to fight its many battles with little or no help.

But the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran has rattled Israel's self-confidence. Its politicians and generals warn of a "second Holocaust" if, as in the 1930s, the world stands by while a heavily armed nation declares war against the Jews.

Spelling out that scenario, Israeli officials have begun an unusually open campaign to muster international political and economic pressures against Iran. They warn that time is growing short and hint that they will resort to force if those pressures fail to prevent Iran's development of an atomic weapon.

Israeli leaders fear that an Iranian bomb would undermine their nation's security even if Tehran never detonated it. That Israel has its own nuclear arsenal would not counteract the psychological and strategic blow, they believe.

Israel began secretly preparing in the early 1990s for a possible air raid on Iran's then-nascent nuclear facilities and has been making oblique public statements about such planning for three years.

What is new is Israel's abandonment of quiet diplomacy to rally others to its side. Until a few months ago, Israeli leaders worried that high-profile lobbying would backfire and provoke accusations that they were trying to drag the United States and its allies into a war.

Israel's new activism coincides with a recent drumbeat of U.S. threats against Iran, including President Bush's vow to "seek out and destroy" Iranian and Syrian networks he said were arming and training anti-American forces in Iraq, and his dispatch of a second aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf.

Several factors have contributed to Israel's more assertive campaign, Israeli officials and defense analysts said.

Israel's war against Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last summer brought Tehran's hostility alarmingly close to home. At the same time, the war made relatively moderate Sunni-dominated Arab nations more wary of Shiite Iran, easing Israel's isolation and creating a de facto anti-Iran coalition.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction. And while denying any plan to build an atomic weapon, Iran has continued to enrich uranium and acquire long-range missiles.

And Israeli leaders worry that the window is closing on any hope for decisive action by Bush, their most powerful supporter. The head of Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, told parliament late last year that Iran would be able to produce a nuclear weapon as early as 2009, the year Bush is to leave office. Other analysts have predicted a longer timetable.

Since last summer, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has sounded an alarm against Iran in public and in meetings with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, China, Egypt and Jordan. He has also met twice with Bush.

"The Jewish people, on whom the scars of the Holocaust are deeply etched, cannot allow itself to again face a threat against its very existence," Olmert said last month in a speech reviewing the diplomatic campaign. "In the past, the world remained silent and the results are known. Our role is to prevent the world from repeating this mistake."

Israel strongly prefers that the world keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons through crippling, dissuasive economic sanctions, Olmert said. But he added: "We have the right to full freedom of action in defense of our vital interests. We will not hesitate to use it."

'Force them to reconsider'

Olmert on Tuesday reiterated that economic pressure might be enough to halt Iran.

"I think there is a way to stop the Iranians from moving forward on their nuclear program without violent actions," the prime minister said in a speech to visiting American Jewish leaders.

If wide-ranging sanctions can "cause such damage to the Iranian economy — and we see some signs already — it will force them to reconsider," he said.

Israel's new stance was evident in December as its lobbying contributed to a United Nations Security Council decision to ban the sale to Iran of materials used in uranium enrichment, reprocessing and building ballistic missiles. Enriched uranium can be used to produce electricity or a nuclear bomb.

Despite misgivings about the risk of a backlash, Israel is helping the United States push broader voluntary sanctions to cut Iran's trade credits, oil investments and ties to foreign banks. In that effort, it is helping the U.S. Treasury Department monitor the activities of Iranian banks abroad.