Analysis: Iranian nuclear threat, Hamas and Hizbullah rockets pose greatest challenges in '09

Iran is playing a sophisticated game of cat and mouse with the international community.

Ahmadinejad Natanz 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Ahmadinejad Natanz 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
As a reminder of the myriad security challenges Israel faces in 2009, OC Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee during a briefing on Wednesday that Iran has "crossed the technological threshold" in its quest for nuclear weapons, but added that Iran was playing a sophisticated game of cat and mouse with the international community, which required it to stop one step short of actually producing an atomic bomb. "They are enriching fissile material in a low percentage of 4.5," Yadlin said, "but whoever knows how to enrich [fissile material] to 4.5% also knows how to enrich it to 20%, 60% or 93%. With 4,000 centrifuges spinning, to change from 4.5% to 93% takes only a few months to a year," Yadlin said. The numbers Yadlin mentioned are a reference to two forms of enriched uranium: low-enriched uranium (LEU) and high-enriched uranium (HEU). Nuclear experts say Iran already has enough LEU for a bomb, but the LEU must undergo further enrichment to become HEU before a nuclear weapon could be produced. "Assuming it takes about 1500 centrifuges operating 24/ 7 to produce enough nuclear fuel for one bomb in a year, my take is that Teheran could have enough fuel to have a bomb during 2009," Professor Raymond Tanter, President of the Washington-based Iran Policy Committee, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. The committee is comprised of former officials from the White House, State Department, Pentagon and intelligence services, as well as academic experts who believe that Iranian opposition movements should be given a central role in pushing for democratic change in Iran. "My sources indicate that the regime is using the negotiation track to buy time to enrich from LEU to HEU," Tanter warned, although he stressed that the Iran had not yet begun enriching from LEU to HEU. "Because weaponization is easier than producing enriched uranium, the regime could have a few bombs within two years with its approximately 6,000 centrifuges operating at full capacity," he said. Nuclear weapons require delivery vehicles, and Iran has been busy acquiring long-range ballistic missiles, all of which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, according to sources in the Defense Ministry. The BM25 missiles Iran purchased from North Korea approximately a year and a half ago, which have a range of 2,500 kilometers, are one example. A Defense Ministry source said he expected the missiles to be operational soon. The BM25 was originally developed by Russia for the Soviet fleet of submarines, before North Korea converted it into a surface-to-surface missile. Its long range and high speed means Iran has upgraded its ability to deliver a nuclear weapon. Other ballistic delivery vehicles include the Shihab-3 missile, which is capable of striking Israel. At the start of 2008, Iran possessed 30 Shihab-3 missiles, but currently, the country claims to have over 100 of them, though that claim is unverified. Closer to home, in southern Lebanon, Hizbullah has tripled its rocket arsenal since 2006, to around 40,000, according to defense sources. The rockets can strike most of Israel, and Hizbullah hopes its rocket stocks will serve as a deterrent to Israel against a potential military strike on Iran's nuclear sites. In the meantime, Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, continues to threaten Israel with retaliation for the violent death of its field commander, Imad Mughniyeh. In Gaza, Hamas is replenishing its rocket stocks. Some of the rockets continue to be smuggled in through subterranean tunnels linking Sinai to Gaza, while inside Gaza, Hamas engineers create increasingly powerful versions of the Kassam. The newer versions are capable of carrying larger amounts of explosives. The Ashkelon school struck by one such rocket in late February bears witness to the new power of the upgraded Kassam, which tore through empty classrooms, spraying pieces of shrapnel in all directions. Israel's intelligence agencies have already warned the police in the South to be prepared to face continued rocket threats. A glimpse at the extent of rocket attacks which struck southern Israel during Operation Cast Lead reveals startling figures: Police were called to 300 rocket impact zones during the conflict. In total between 800 and 900 projectiles were fired at Israel from Gaza. According to Southern Police District head Cmdr. Yochanan Danino, the intelligence also predicts "non-stop" attempts by Palestinian terror organizations in the West Bank to infiltrate Israel and carry out an attack on Israeli civilians. That threat was underlined on Saturday night when terrorists parked a car bomb carrying 100 kilograms of explosives outside a busy mall. Israel Police Insp.-Gen. David Cohen may have summed it up best when he said on Tuesday, "The coming year of 2009 will bring with it complex security challenges. I say this every year, and every year it is true."