"Existential" threat from Iran makes Israel wary of nuclear-free zone
TEL AVIV (AFP) Jul 07, 2004
Israeli officials told the UN atomic energy chief Wednesday that their country was not ready to move towards banning nuclear weapons from the Middle East as Iran remained a threat to its very existence.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Mohamed ElBaradei, who is campaigning to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone, said Israeli officials raised their fears about Tehran's atomic program, which has been under investigation by the IAEA since February 2003 for allegedly hiding a secret weapons program.

"They (the Israelis) were expressing concern about Iran," ElBaradei told reporters after a meeting here with Gideon Franck, head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

ElBaradei told Franck about "his fear for the Middle East given the complete erosion of the legitimacy of the non-proliferation regime," IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told reporters.

ElBaradei said "Arab nations feel Israel is treated differently," as it is not investigated by the IAEA since it has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that gives the agency its mandate, Gwozdecky said.

Meanwhile, "Israel has its own threat perception which it believes is unique" as the country believes "it is the only state (in the region) that faces an existential threat" as Tehran is opposed to the very existence of the Jewish state, Gwozdecky said.

Most foreign experts believe Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal of around 200 warheads, although it has stuck for the past 40 years to a policy of "strategic ambiguity" of neither confirming nor denying this.

ElBaradei "sees his role as trying to bridge these two poles (between Israel and the Arabs) and to try to reach a dialogue."

ElBaradei was taken Wednesday on a flight over Israel by a senior military official that skirted the borders with Lebanon and Syria. He also flew over Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

A senior diplomat who asked not to be named said ElBaradei was shown the vulnerability of Israel where planes can fly from "one border to another in three-and-a-half minutes."

In another sign of vulnerability, Israeli military intelligence chief Aharon Zeevi was quoted Wednesday as saying Tehran might have the bomb by 2008 if the international community does not halt Iran's march to acquiring nuclear weapons.

In June, the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors condemned Tehran for poor cooperation and urged it to provide more information so the investigation could conclude in a few months.

Iran's Defence Minister Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani warned Wednesday that the Islamic republic would abandon its commitments to the IAEA if its nuclear installations were attacked.

Iran's nuclear program was also on the agenda in Washington during talks Tuesday between US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

"Iran is the country that has announced that one missile toward Israel will destroy the Jewish state. So we should be concerned about the Iranians' efforts to develop nuclear weapons," Shalom said.

Powell said Washington would "continue to press ... to make sure the international community stands unified behind the effort to stop Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons development, or worse, acquiring a nuclear weapon".

ElBaradei began his visit to Israel on Tuesday by playing down prospects of a breakthrough in his efforts to persuade the government to reveal its nuclear secrets and rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons.

"I have no illusion that things could happen overnight but I believe that the earlier we start a security dialogue, the better," ElBaradei said.

In other matters, Israel pledged Wednesday to contribute to an IAEA fund to help developing nations develop better cancer therapies.

Gwozdecky said health ministry officials said Israel was ready to offer its hospitals for training people from developing countries.

ElBaradei is to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday, but the premier has stressed that Israel's policy of refusing to confirm or deny that it has nuclear weapons would continue.