Israel and the world would be wise to maintain a controlled panic mode about the nuclear arms machinations of the mullahs of Teheran. The latest fulminations of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, advocating the transfer of Israeli Jews to Germany and Austria, follow his stated desire to wipe Israel off the map.
Ahmadinejad backs up his threat by going full-steam ahead with Iran's bid to put nuclear warheads on its Shihab-3 ballistic missiles.
Israel may be the declared target, but Iran's neighbors (which include Turkey, Russia and Iraq), parts of Europe and US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are in range of the Shihabs. And while Israel is the little Satan, according to Teheran, the US is the great Satan.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Dan Halutz have both warned that Israel cannot countenance a nuclear-armed Iran, which could happen, says Halutz, by 2008.
Despite the palpable danger, some observations may put the threat in perspective as far as Israel is concerned.
â€¢ Israel possesses the only comprehensive anti-ballistic missile defense system in the world. According to published reports, it works like this: Israel's Ofek spy satellite, or feeds from US spies-in-the-atmosphere, pick up a Shihab launch in Iran, and set into motion the Israel Air Force's Arrow search-and-destroy system. The Arrow's Green Pine radar tracks the missile and sics a trio of killer missiles onto the Shihab, blasting it out of the sky before it reaches fallout range of Israel. The IAF arsenal includes two operational Arrow batteries consisting of 100 missiles each.
It might give even the Iranians pause to consider that nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles launched from, for example, Natanz, near Teheran (one of Iran's nuclear facilities, housing a centrifuge plant), targeting Tel Aviv could be intercepted by Arrows on their fight path over Arab capitals such as Baghdad and Amman. If long-range Shihabs are dispatched from eastern Iraq, they could be blown out of the sky over Iran itself. If the missiles are shot down at their highest trajectory the fallout in the atmosphere would be negligible, but if knocked down soon after launch the fallout might be devastating.
â€¢ If the Iranians rattle their nuclear sabers, Ahmadinejad and his ayatollahs have to take into account Israel's own nuclear strike capability. According to foreign reports, the Israel Navy possesses nuclear-missile-armed submarines, and Teheran can't be sure where these are deployed. This in addition to an arsenal of ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, and warplanes armed with nuclear bombs, which could blanket Iranian population centers.
â€¢ It is quite a technological feat to get the somewhat antiquated Shihab, with complex nuclear-warhead capability, up in the air and on target 1,700 kilometers away. I am not entirely convinced the Iranians are up to it.
WHEN I was in Iran last, some decades ago, I visited friends in Shiraz. The friends, professors at the University of Shiraz, gave me some interesting insights into the technological capabilities of the Iranians. There was a modern manufacturing facility in the area, a General Electric factory producing refrigerators. However, whenever there was even a minor breakdown in the production line, American technicians had to be called in to fix it. Similarly, at a nearby air-force base, the Americans had to hold the Iranians' hands to keep the large fleet of Phantom warplanes in the air.
That was under the regime of the shah. I wonder if the mullahs' anti-Western ideology has done much to boost their nation's technological expertise. A poorly maintained US-built Hercules transport crashed into a building in Teheran last week killing more than 100 people.
The mullahs flaunt their home-made tanks, missiles (garlanded with "for the liberation of Palestine" slogans) and other hardware at their military parades. They have even built their own submarines. All I can say is that if I were an Iranian parent I would be a little uneasy if my son served on one of those vessels. The hardware is only one part of the equation, it's the software that makes the machines smart, and here the Iranians may come up short. They have, of course, plenty of oil money to buy foreign know-how, and Iran is moving ahead in sophisticated nuclear technology. But even advanced technological societies have been badly burned in this field; remember the Soviet Union's Chernobyl nuclear reactor catastrophe and Russia's Kursk nuclear submarine disaster.
During the Cold War a nuclear doomsday was kept at bay by the MAD scenario - the two superpowers had so much nuclear devastation aimed at each other that a Mutually Assured Destruction stand-off was maintained.
As far as the Iranians are concerned their nuclear situation vis-a-vis Israel could be a UAD scenario. If a creaky nuclear-tipped Shihab was launched in this direction the mullahs could not be sure that it would reach here and it might result in the Unilaterally Assured Destruction of the Islamic Republic.
The writer is a former military correspondent and former managing editor of The Jerusalem Post.