Iran – a Nuclear Belligerent?

Can Israel deter the Iranians from launching missiles against Israel in the years to come? That may seem like a pretty good assumption, but who would like to put it to the test?


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on February 15, 2005.)

Having put the danger of war by conventional means behind it after the Israel Defense Forces’ victory over the Egyptian and Syrian armies in the Yom Kippur War, Israel in recent years has had to contend with two “unconventional” dangers – Palestinian terror and ballistic missiles launched against Israel from over the horizon.

During the past two years, the Security Services and the IDF have scored a very considerable success in fighting terrorism. The number of Israeli casualties from terrorist attacks has come down dramatically, and the myth that terrorism cannot be defeated by military means has just about been disproved. The tactics applied – combining real-time intelligence and targeted assassinations with a military presence on the ground – will probably be studied in other countries faced by the threat of terrorism.

As a matter of fact, Israel was probably close to imposing a decisive defeat on Palestinian terror when the government decided to give the new Palestinian chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, a chance to finish the job of dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. The opposition he has voiced to the Palestinians’ use of terror tactics is no doubt influenced by witnessing the success Israel has had against the terrorists. He must be well aware that if he misses the opportunity that has been given him, Israel will finish the job.

Israel continues to live with the ballistic threat, now coming from Iran. Made aware of the danger during the Gulf War 14 years ago, when Saddam Hussein launched 39 Scud missiles against Israel from western Iraq, the threat of Iran, armed with medium-range ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads, does not seem very distant at the moment. The Iranians have missiles with sufficient range, courtesy of North Korea, and they are going all-out in the development of a nuclear warhead, having received assistance from  Pakistan.

If and when Iran arrives at this capability, it will, of course, not be the only country with such weapons, but it will be the only country on earth with such weapons in a state of war with Israel, and has for years conducted war-like acts against Israel and Israeli targets abroad.

Iran is responsible for the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, and the bombing there of the Jewish Community Building, AMIA, in 1994. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia waging war against Israel, is funded, trained and equipped by Iran. Recently Hezbollah, encouraged by the Iranians, has become involved in Palestinian terrorism. Iran armed with ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads represents a very significant escalation in the dangers facing Israel.

How is Israel dealing with this growing danger, which has been no secret now for many years? An important step has been taken with the development of the Arrow ballistic missile interceptor, which has a high probability of intercepting missiles launched from Iran. It is at the present the only operational ballistic missile interceptor in the world. But considering the existential danger of the threat posed, there is a reluctance to rely only on Israel’s interception capability.

Can Israel deter the Iranians from launching missiles against Israel in the years to come? That may seem like a pretty good assumption, but who would like to put it to the test? At the moment, considerable diplomatic pressure is being applied in Iran by the U.S. and some of the European countries to cease the development of nuclear weapons. It must be said that since George W. Bush entered the White House, the Iranian nuclear threat is being taken much more seriously, but nevertheless, in light of the bellicose statements coming out of Tehran, there remains some doubt whether the diplomatic offensive will bear fruit.

On the subject of the Iranian threat, there is room for some soul-searching in Israel’s intelligence community. An essential ingredient in Iran’s nuclear weapons project was the assistance they have received over the years from the Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qader Khan. It has been well-known that he absconded from Holland in 1976, taking with him the blueprints of the centrifuges used for enriching uranium developed there. Since then he has been peddling nuclear know-how in many parts of the world, but especially in Iran.

When did Israel become aware of this activity?

The Iranian ballistic missile program, and ballistic missile proliferation in the Middle East generally, has been based on assistance from North Korea, with missile components and North Korean technician arriving in the area for the past 25 years. When did Israel become fully aware of this activity?

It looks like a reexamination is called for. This is no minor matter.


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