Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2002 / 26 Teves, 5762

Seized ship is terror
wake-up call

By Yossi Klein Halevi -- JERUSALEM | The Israeli operation that seized a ship filled with more than 50 tons of Iranian arms reportedly bound for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority highlights Iran's central role in international terrorism. And combined with recent Iranian threats to Israel's existence, the weapons ship mocks the hope of those American officials who call for including the fundamentalist Muslim regime in the anti-terrorist coalition.

The weapons on board the Karine-A vessel--which the Palestinian Authority denies were headed its way--included Katyusha rockets intended for use against Israeli towns and more than 11/2 tons of explosives, which Israeli military intelligence agencies suspect may have been earmarked for car bombings or suicide attacks. And the revelation by the captain of the Karine-A of Hezbollah involvement in transferring the weapons onto the vessel at least suggests that the Lebanese terrorist group served as an intermediary between the Palestinians and the Iranians.

The emergence of a Palestinian-Iranian-Hezbollah connection transforms Palestinian terrorism from a local to a global terrorist threat. Iran's terrorist mischief becomes even more frightening in the context of its nuclear program. Though Iran has insisted its nuclear development is intended for peaceful means, at least one Iranian leader is actively contemplating nuclear war against Israel. On Dec. 14, Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Iranian president and currently chairman of the government's powerful guidance council, told a Tehran University audience that the vast Muslim world could easily survive nuclear war, while tiny Israel would be destroyed. "The founding of the state of Israel is the worst event in all of history," he said. "If the day comes when the world of Islam is equipped with weapons similar to those that Israel possesses ... nothing will remain after one atom bomb is dropped on Israel."

That day could be approaching. According to Israel's defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Iran is about three years away from developing a nuclear strike capability. And Israel is already well within range of Iranian missiles. That threat is hardly confined to Israel alone: Iran is developing new generations of ballistic missiles with intercontinental range.

When the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin initiated the Oslo peace process, one of his main rationales was the need to neutralize the Palestinian conflict and free Israel for an eventual confrontation with its existential enemy, Iran.

Sooner or later, Rabin believed, Israel would be forced to destroy Iran's nuclear capability, just as Israel destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.

Rafsanjani's speech reveals Rabin's prescience in identifying Iran as a threat to Israel's survival.

As Washington contemplates its next strike against terrorism, Iran needs to be moved from the column of potential allies to the column of potential targets. In fact, an attack on Iran--even before a strike against Iraq--may be strategically compelling. Attacking Iran first would preclude the danger of an Iranian seizure of Shiite areas of southern Iraq. And an attack on Tehran could embolden the democratic uprising against the mullahs that is stirring just below the surface of imposed uniformity.

Destroying the Taliban has been a crucial first step in the war against radical Islam. But the real defeat of Islamic extremists must happen in Tehran, where the movement won its most compelling victory.

The message of modern holy war first emanated from Iran; indeed, the war against the U.S. that culminated on Sept. 11 began with the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Israel's interception of the weapons ship has sabotaged Iran's moderate image, carefully cultivated in recent months to avoid scrutiny of its nuclear program. But now that its continuing involvement in international terrorism has been exposed, it cannot be allowed to continue its nuclear development unimpeded.

If President Bush is serious about challenging terror at its root, he cannot avoid a confrontation with the regime that initiated anti-American terrorism and that is considering a nuclear nightmare.

JWR contributor Yossi Klein Halevi is the Israel correspondent for the New Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report. He is the author of "Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist (Little, Brown) and, most recently, "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for G-d with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land." Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002,Yossi Klein Halevi. This article originally appeared in the LA Times.