Iranian nuclear technicians 248.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
As more than 46.2 million eligible Iranian voters choose their president in elections on Friday, senior Israeli defense officials who closely watch Iran stress that the outcome is unlikely to have any impact on Teheran's continued race toward nuclear power.
Whether the winner is incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or his reformist challenger, the former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, the consensus in the Israeli defense establishment is that the centrifuges in the underground bunker at Iran's Natanz facility will continue spinning and enriching uranium.
In contrast to Israel, where the focus when it comes to Iran is overwhelmingly on the nuclear program, domestically, the elections are more about growing unemployment - estimated at close to 20 percent - and runaway inflation, which recently topped 30%.
In a country where 70% of the population is under the age of 35, the future is not bright for Iran's youth, analysts note. Every year 1.2 million people graduate from the country's universities. Out of those, only about a third are able to find jobs. The price of basic commodities has also spiked over the past year by more than 150%.
The Mousavi-Ahmadinejad showdown also focuses on Islamic law. The incumbent has expanded the reach of the Shari'a since his election in 2005. Mousavi, on the other hand, appears at election rallies together with his wife and promises equality for women.
While all of this is important for understanding the Iranian people, Israel's attention is not on the cost of bread and meat but on the future of Teheran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the defense officials stress. For this reason, there are some in the defense establishment who are silently praying that despite Mousavi's recent climb in the polls, Ahmadinejad wins Friday's vote.
Due to his radical character and extremist remarks, Ahmadinejad helps garner world support for stopping the nuclear program. Due to his reformist and moderate image, Mousavi - who when he was prime minister from 1981 to 1989 helped lay the foundations of the country's atomic program - may succeed in "laundering" the program in a dialogue with the United States, the officials fear.
The concern in Israel is that the dialogue US President Barack Obama plans to hold with Iran after the elections will lead to a deal in which Teheran will be allowed to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
In some Israeli defense establishment circles this possibility is referred to as the "Japanese Model."
Under such an agreement Iran would be allowed to build and operate nuclear reactors like Japan - which has reactors but no weapons. This would put the Islamic republic a turn of the dial on the centrifuges and mere months away from an atomic bomb.
Obama himself hinted in his speech in Cairo last week at such an arrangement when he said that "any nation - including Iran - should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."
If Iran is offered such a deal, the assessment in Israel is that both front-runners will go for it, leaving Israel in something of a Catch-22 situation, since if it does nothing Iran will go nuclear, but if it decides to attack Teheran's nuclear sites it will undermine Obama's deal and ruin the already severely strained relations between Washington and Jerusalem.
Iran has rebuffed a bid from the UN nuclear monitoring agency to beef up its monitoring ability at an important atomic site as it tries to keep track of the country's rapidly growing uranium enrichment capabilities, diplomats said Thursday.
The diplomats said the Islamic Republic in recent weeks turned down a request from the International Atomic Energy Agency to place one or more additional surveillance cameras at the Natanz enrichment site.
In addition, they said, the agency was concerned Iran would use its recent denial of access to Natanz to agency inspectors seeking a surprise visit as a precedent, further hampering the UN agency's need to increase its oversight.
IAEA spokesman Marc Vidricaire said the agency would have no comment.
The Israeli defense establishment is also not overly impressed by reports from Washington that Obama has asked Rep. Howard Berman of California to prepare legislation - in case the dialogue fails - to ratchet up sanctions against Iran. Without securing a guarantee first from Russia that it would support additional sanctions, the new legislation is considered by some in the Defense Ministry to be an empty threat.
One way to recruit Moscow for effective sanctions would be for Obama to declare publicly that the US recognized Russia's status as a world superpower and for Washington to cancel its plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe.
For these reasons, there are a growing number of voices in Israeli defense corridors quietly saying that Jerusalem needs to prepare for the possibility that Iran will go nuclear.
While some say that Iran would be inclined to test a nuclear weapon to demonstrate its newfound capability to the world, others - particularly within Military Intelligence - believe that Iran might adopt a policy of ambiguity regarding its nuclear status, similar to Israel's.â€¢