World

Israel's Ambassador on How to Stop Iran

Sallai Meridor has been Israel's ambassador to the United States since 2006. During that time, his government's main strategic worry has been Iran, and that remains so today despite the fighting in Gaza. Israel warns that Iran is making rapid progress toward a nuclear bomb—Meridor calculates that Tehran should have enough fuel for its first bomb sometime in 2009—and that Israel will take military action unless the United States and other allies step in. A former intelligence officer, Meridor recently met with NEWSWEEK editors in New York to discuss Iran and how best to deal with it. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Is there a timetable on Iran's nuclear program? The CIA is saying they could have a weapon by 2015.
MERIDOR: Look, this is the most critical issue for America and the Western world. The major concern is instability and the potential for nuclear weapons to escape the region, which is not necessarily going to wait until Iran has a nuclear warhead on a missile. The closer they get to having a bomb, and the closer they are perceived to be, you can expect Iran's neighbors to start acting on the assumption that Iran is going to have a bomb.

How close is Iran?
The last IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] report, some weeks ago, indicated that the Iranians already have 630 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. The previous report found 480 kilograms. At that pace they are producing close to 2.5 kilograms a day. And over the past few months they have had a technological breakthrough. Experts differ on how much low-enriched uranium you need for a first bomb. But even if you took the more conservative assumption, sometime in 2009 they will have enough. That nobody would argue against: no intelligence service, no experts.

What would the regional implications of a nuclear Iran be?
Even if Iran just scaled up the quantity of its uranium, is it safe to assume that the Arab countries would stay calm and do nothing? Every Gulf country is all of a sudden looking for civilian nuclear energy. And you have Turkey, and Egypt is on the same track. So we are on the verge of a cascade of instability and a potential cascade of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

What about Iran's rising political influence?
The growing hegemony of Iran is terrifying to the Gulf countries. Start with Bahrain, which has a 70 percent Shia population, and which, at a certain period in the Persian history was in under Iranian control. Or Saudi Arabia, which is some 15 percent Shia concentrated in the oil-rich areas. You also have concern over the growing wave of extremism in the region. Lebanon not able to function as a state and the Palestinians are broken into two pieces.

Some people argue that we don't really need to worry because Iran is essentially a status quo power that has good reason to feel insecure, and that the best approach would be to hammer out a regional security guarantee.
Go ask the Arab countries in the region whether they are ready to buy into such a suggestion.

Would the Arab states go looking for new allies?
Iran's regime, unlike North Korea's, has regional and global ambitions. Just listen to what they're saying and watch how they're acting. Yes, their number one thing is to protect their revolution, but it's not just to protect it from being ousted, it's to protect their revolution in order to grow their revolution. They truly believe that they have the right ideology for the Muslim world. Part of this ideology is confronting Western values and world order. This is what they say. It's not what somebody has to interpret from things they whisper. By their actions, terror in the region, through Hezbollah and direct involvement in different places, by their incitements—take the somewhat Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah in Lebanon and their actions that are devastating health in different parts of Europe by inciting Muslims. It's their ideology, their intention, and their actions make it very difficult to buy this argument that this is only about preserving themselves within the borders of Iran.

What would effective sanctions entail?
I think it might take much stronger sanctions touching on their most serious vulnerability, which is their dependence on importing refined oil products. Then you have general trade. And you would have to consider something like what went on in Iraq in terms of controlling what they spend their oil exports on, making sure that the returns are directed to food and other necessary things and not to the Revolutionary Guards. Yet all the pressures so far have not been enough to offset oil at $100 or $120 a barrel. But if oil stays between $40 and $50, it's going to challenge them.

You've mentioned the string of civilian nuclear deals in the region, but the string goes way beyond the region. How can you link it directly to Iran?
Ask yourself why these oil-rich countries want to go in this direction. I can understand it of countries with no other resources. But we're talking about countries that have vast oil reserves.

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