Between Baghdad and Teheran

The Iranian bazaar has always been more dangerous than the Iraqi thieves' market.

Only Ariel Sharon could have played a key role - as agriculture minister - in the bombing of Iraq's Osirak reactor in June 1981 to keep Saddam Hussein from attaining nuclear weapons. Now Sharon as prime minister is concerned with the problem of how to foil Iran's nuclear program - at a time when his political rival Binyamin Netanyahu is declaring that Israel must make "a courageous decision as it did in 1981" - in other words to bomb Iran's nuclear reactors. Presumably, it is only the bitter political rivalry over the Likud leadership and the contest with Sharon himself that has caused Netanyahu to come out with such a belligerent declaration. After all, Netanyahu knows that as complex as the Israel Air Force's bombing of the reactor in Baghdad was, the nuclear problem in Iran is many times more complex and that it would be advisable to maintain the highest level of secrecy regarding the matter. Prime minister Menachem Begin would apparently not have made the decision to bomb the Baghdad reactor if he had not been pressured in confidential meetings to do so by his agriculture minister and member of this security sub-cabinet - Ariel Sharon. For over a year, while Begin was serving as prime minister (and defense minister in place of Ezer Weizman who had resigned), Sharon appealed to Begin regarding this matter at least 27 times in writing. No other minister in Begin's cabinet pressured the prime minister on this matter as did his agriculture minister - Sharon. And it was after Begin finally made the decision, but only after making sure that he had a unanimous vote in his security cabinet, that the troubles at home began. This week in Globes (December 6) journalist Mati Golan, who had been a great admirer of Shimon Peres and Sharon's sworn rival, revealed that Peres heard about the plan to bomb the Baghdad reactor "from chemistry professor Uzi Even, who had been in on the secret." Peres turned to Begin in an attempt to convince him to cancel the bombing and Begin, stunned by the fact that there had been a leak, only postponed the date - to June 7, 1981. THE EXTERNAL problems Israel faced were no less serious. First, France vehemently denied that the reactor it had sold to Iraq would soon be able to help Saddam attain nuclear weapons. Both Jacques Chirac, who had sold the reactor to Saddam, and president Francois Mitterrand, Shimon Peres's socialist buddy, ignored the incriminating evidence that Israel presented to them. Our data were partly based on information received from a French Jewish scientist who had become disgusted with his government's lies. Even more worrying was the position of the American government, which refused to accept the intelligence reports Israel presented it backed by the opinion of nuclear scientist and genius Yuval Neeman, who viewed a nuclear reactor in Saddam's hands as an existential danger to Israel, and who knew how to keep a state secret, unlike the aforementioned Uzi Even. ONLY IN late 1980, about eight months before our bombing attack, did the US ambassador to Israel, Sam Lewis, bring a top-secret letter to Begin acknowledging that the administration had determined the reactor was indeed designated for the manufacture of weapons. Begin rejected alternative proposals from the Mossad not to attack the reactor. Had Israel not bombed the reactor, and had Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait armed with nuclear weapons, chances are the United States would not have gone in to drive him out in Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. From Israel's perspective, the danger of the Iranian nuclear program is different from the Iraqi one - not only geographically, topographically and technologically - but also internationally. Now, not only the United States recognizes the existence of the great danger, but so does Europe - including, this time, France. Unlike the world's indifference to the threat made by Saddam Hussein in spring 1990 that he would "burn half of Israel," the international community recently hurried to condemn the threat made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to "wipe Israel off the map." The international pressure on Iran may already have led to delays in the implementation of its nuclear program. Life has taught Sharon how difficult it is to keep secrets. "I cannot shut people up," he says. "Israel does not need to be the one to lead the struggle," he recently explained to me. "We must enable the US and the European community to manage the diplomatic battle, including in the Security Council, against Iran's secret nuclear plan. If Israel spearheads this campaign, the Europeans - who have important economic interests in Iran - will view themselves as exempt from having to deal with it. And that is unacceptable given that the situation has only gotten even more grave since the election of the new Iranian president." That is why Sharon has given orders to maintain continual contact with the White House, the Elys e Palace in Paris and 10 Downing Street in order to update the leaders in real time. The Iranian nuclear program is being carried out with more deceit and trickery than Saddam Hussein employed in 1981. Teheran's bazaar has always been more dangerous than Baghdad's thieves' market. We can assume that Sharon, who as agriculture minister was instrumental in bringing about the bombing of the Baghdad reactor, knows a quarter of a century later as prime minister what he is talking about when he declares that "Israel and others cannot allow a situation to emerge where Iran becomes a nuclear power."