- THE IRANIAN PRESIDENT'S CALL LAST WEEK
FOR "THOUGHTFUL DIALOGUE" WITH PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON MASKED
A REALITY THAT HAS DRIVEN INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES AROUND THE WORLD INTO A
STATE OF ALARM: TEHRAN'S MULLAHS ARE INTENSIFYING EFFORTS TO ASSEMBLE LONG-RANGE
MISSILES TO STRIKE AT THEIR FOES.
- Western anxieties have been heightened
by an Israeli intelligence report that Iran is only two years away from
building a nuclear bomb. A senior American official said that despite considerable
efforts, it had not been possible to halt a flow of Russian missile technology
- Fears of an Iranian nuclear capability,
combined with the technology to launch a warhead far beyond its borders,
have prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent months.
- The Clinton administration has quietly
pressed Moscow to stop Russian scientists and military institutes from
helping the Iranians to develop a ballistic missile that could reach Israel
and Saudi Arabia as well as American troops in the Gulf.
- Despite appeals from Clinton to President
Boris Yeltsin to stop the traffic, Moscow has failed to impose control,
however, and intelligence sources believe Iran's shopping for nuclear know-how
is becoming ever more inventive.
- The South African government voiced concern
last week at reports from Israeli intelligence sources that nuclear scientists
from the apartheid era were being recruited by Tehran. "There may
well be South African nuclear experts who have been made redundant here
and are willing to hire their skills to any country prepared to pay,"
a government spokesman conceded.
- With Middle East peace negotiations at
an impasse, Israel has deployed its lobbying power in Washington to assail
the American government with concerns about Iran, accusing American diplomats
of being too tolerant of Russia's inability to confine its weapons scientists
- In July, Clinton appointed Frank Wisner,
a former ambassador to India, as a "special envoy" to tackle
the problem of missile proliferation. But his flurry of missions to Moscow,
Cairo and Tel Aviv has so far done nothing to satisfy the White House that
Tehran can be trusted.
- Tensions over the issue have risen so
high that Israel has begun talking about its own nuclear capability as
a counter-force to its enemies' advanced weapons rather than as a defence
of last resort. The new language is seen by analysts as a chilling dimension
to the conflict in the Middle East.
- Efforts to gauge Iran's nuclear expertise
have been obstructed by contradictory reports. At one site, about 200 Russians
are helping to build a nuclear power plant. Despite fears that the project
masks a more sinister purpose, the International Atomic Energy Agency has
said there is no evidence that Iran has the capacity to produce nuclear
- NEVERTHELESS ISRAELI INTELLIGENCE SOURCES
SAID LAST WEEK THAT ACCORDING TO THEIR INFORMATION, IRAN WAS BETWEEN SIX
AND 24 MONTHS FROM BUILDING A NUCLEAR BOMB. British and American assessments
suggest it would take Tehran five to 10 years to acquire the necessary
technology for waging a nuclear war.
- Whatever the case, the perception has
grown in the West that it cannot afford to wait to find out who is right,
a message being vigorously communicated to Moscow by western diplomats.
America has played on deep-rooted Kremlin anxieties about the expansion
of Iran's influence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. This
may be paying off.
- The Russian counter-intelligence agency
announced last month that it had foiled an Iranian attempt to obtain missile
designs. An Iranian citizen linked to Tehran's Moscow embassy was caught
"red-handed" and deported, the Russians said, after he had tried
to buy documents at an underground railway station.
- His capture did little to calm Israeli
fears, however, and reports have been circulating in Tel Aviv that Benjamin
NETANYAHU, THE PRIME MINISTER, MAY BE PLANNING AIR STRIKES AGAINST WEAPONS
FACILITIES IN IRAN.
- ISRAEL IS CONCERNED THAT ITS REGIONAL
ISOLATION MAY BE INTENSIFIED BY A RAPPROCHEMENT BETWEEN AMERICA AND IRAN
following the initiative of Muhammad Khatami, the Iranian president, to
extend an olive branch to the West.
- Khatami expressed respect for "the
great people of the United States" and said he hoped their countries
"could get closer to peace, security and tranquillity". Clinton
responded warmly but emphasised that any talks would have to cover matters
of American concern.
- Khatami, who unexpectedly beat a hardline
candidate for the presidency in May, has yet to prove that he has won a
struggle for power with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's spiritual
leader. Khamenei is thought to regard the president's overture to America
- long branded the "Great Satan" by Tehran's fundamentalist mullahs
- as a betrayal of the Islamic revolution.
- As long as the outcome of that struggle
is uncertain, America appears inclined to give Israel the benefit of the
doubt. The flow of weapons technology to Iran, said an American official,
"is a matter of great seriousness, affecting our interests and those
of our allies. Much more is going to have to be done to get this thing
fully under control".