Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz called Monday for a naval blockade of Iran within two to six months, saying sanctions have failed to convince the Islamic republic to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
“We’ll need more than talk and sanctions,” Steinitz told a meeting here of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. “It’s high time the West and the United States gave Iran a deadline to change its behavior. … We need a clear deadline for Iran to become open for inspection otherwise the ramifications should be like you did with Cuba in 1962. It kept the U.S. from going to war. It’s time for clear messages and deadlines.”
His comments come at a time when Iran has acknowledged that computers at its Bushehr nuclear power station were hit by a computer virus. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly vowed a military response.
An adviser to the Kuwaiti government on Iran, Sami Alfaraj, has raised the possibility that Iran might unleash a dirty bomb on the West. Such a device consists of a conventional explosive that is used to spray radioactive material over a wide area. It is designed to frighten and requires those exposed to be decontaminated; buildings and land in the blast zone would be unusable for long periods of time.
“I would not be surprised if this regime lashed out at its adversaries regionally and internationally by doing something as barbaric and irresponsible [as detonating a dirty bomb] — and it would do it in the coming year,” said Alfaraj, founder and president of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies.
In an interview with The Jewish Week here before news of the computer virus was reported, Alfaraj said: “The more the Iranian regime finds itself under a tight noose with sanctions,” the sooner it will act.
“I don’t think Iran will sit still and wait for its adversaries to take action against it,” he explained. “It has always taken the initiative except in the Iraq-Iran War when it was attacked in 1980 by [Saddam] Hussein. Since then it has sworn [not to let that happen again]. … Iran has enough material for a dirty bomb without creating a full-fledged nuclear device. And it could give it to its proxies [Hamas and Hezbollah] for use in any cities in the world.”
Steinitz, asked about the possibility of Iran resorting to the use of a dirty bomb, said simply: “We have to take everything into account. Iran is very dangerous because of the nature of the regime. … It’s not impossible. It’s very dangerous, and we can never know what they are willing to do.”
Although several other Iranian experts in the United States and Israel expressed doubt that Iran would develop a dirty bomb, Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said he believes “those in the Gulf have a better feel not for what Iran is capable of but for what Iran is likely to do than we do.”
But Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on Iran, said he believes it is “highly unlikely” that Iran would “empower Hezbollah” by giving it a dirty bomb.
“Iran has other kinds of non-conventional weaponry like chemical weapons that it has not shared,” he said. “I don’t see a pattern that would support that.”
Berman pointed out, however, that Iran did share with Hezbollah its own variant of a Chinese cruise missile, which was used to hit the Israeli missile cruiser the INS Hanit during the Israeli war with Hezbollah in 2006. The ship was enforcing the Israeli naval blockade of Lebanon off the coast of Beirut; four Israelis were killed.
“It’s not clear if the Iranian revolutionary guards or Hezbollah fired it, but it played an important role in the conflict by providing Hezbollah with additional firepower,” Berman said. “So although it is not clear if Iran would empower its proxies with a nuclear or a dirty bomb, you can’t exclude it because history has shown it has done similar things in the past.”
Yoram Schweitzer, director of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at Tel Aviv University, said he believes it is “not very likely that Iran will give up control over such as weapon.”
Although Iran encouraged or assisted Hezbollah in carrying out the deadly bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1992 that killed 29, and the bombing in the same city two years later of the AMIA Jewish community center that killed 85, Schweitzer said: “You can’t compare sponsoring terrorism and transferring nuclear material to terrorist organizations. … I don’t think these groups are interested in such weapons or need it.”
“States that sponsor terrorism by proxy are playing a tricky game,” he added. “They are playing with fire and they know it. … They are reluctant to do it because the tolerance for such acts after 9/11 is much less.”
Eldad Pardo, an expert on Iran at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement for Peace in Jerusalem, pointed out that the U.S. did not respond after Hezbollah, with Iranian help, bombed the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
Pardo said he believed “it is possible” that Iran might give Hezbollah a dirty bomb to detonate “but as long as Iran is still in one piece and has not totally disintegrated — and they are not near collapsing — I don’t see it. It would mean the end of Iran because the entire West would come and conquer Iran.”
Berman agreed that the threat of retaliation might be enough for Iran to have second thoughts, because a dirty bomb can be traced back to its the maker.
“If they turn to a dirty bomb, it’s easy to conclude that Iran is giving away the store and there is no reason not to bomb them,” he said.
Larry Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, said he believes Iran is determined to go all the way and make a nuclear bomb to “threaten its enemies with.”
“I don’t see any evidence that it wants to stop at a halfway measure that a dirty bomb would suggest,” he said. “Nor do I see that economic pressures will ever be serious enough to deter Iran. … I don’t think the West is doing anything but slowing down the march to nuclear capacity.”
Gabriella Shalev, who until recently was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, agreed that the fourth round of sanctions approved in June by the Security Council are not crippling but are “very powerful.”
The sanctions, she told reporters at an Israel Project luncheon last month, “paved the way for the United States and for the European Union to have their individual or national sanctions. We hear now thinking about sanctions that will be pointed toward the central bank [of Iran]. These sanctions may not prevent the nuclear race, but they will delay it, and we are winning time.”
Shalev noted that the sanctions were being pursued after the diplomatic approach tried by President Barack Obama failed.
“We saw that happened at the revolution, at the elections, and we know that this did not work — the diplomatic avenue,” she said. “So now we have to try in other ways, which is the sanctions, in order to avoid the worst option. And I’m not going to comment on this bad, bad, bad option that I think nobody wants to reach.”
The idea of a naval blockade of Iran is not new. On May 21, 2008, there were reports that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had suggested it to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The next day, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens-Long Island) introduced a bill that, although non-binding, would have urged President George W. Bush to prevent Iran from importing any refined petroleum products and demanded that he initiate an international effort to inspect “all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran.”
The Democratic leadership, fearing that it could have provoked a war, eventually shelved the bill.
Alfaraj, the Kuwaiti expert on Iran, pointed out that Iranian leaders, fearful that Israel, the U.S. or both might attack them, might believe they “have to create a real dirty bomb or the allusions that they have one for the purpose of deterrence.”
A dirty bomb attack has never occurred, although there have been scares. New York City has 4,500 sensors throughout the five boroughs that are designed to detect radioactivity and nuclear material. That includes the nearly 2,000 devices carried by police officers on their belts that are designed to detect the gamma radiation emitted by dirty bombs. In addition, police trucks and helicopters carry larger detection equipment.
The federal government last month announced the city would be receiving $18.5 million to maintain its dirty-bomb detection system after telling lawmakers the city remains a primary terrorism target.
Steinitz’s call for a naval blockade of Iran comes at a time when Iran has acknowledged that a computer virus that is capable of seizing control of industrial plants affected personal computers of staff working at the Bushehr nuclear power station just weeks before it was to go on line. Although it said the virus had not damaged any major systems of the plant, the plant’s opening was delayed until January.
Last Saturday, Iranian Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi announced that several “nuclear spies” had been arrested.
“The enemy had sent electronic worms through the Internet to undermine Iran’s nuclear activities,” he was quoted as saying.
That statement suggested that the computer virus had spread beyond the Bushehr plant to other nuclear sites reportedly involved in developing nuclear weapons.
In addition to the computer virus, Iran is also reportedly plagued with faulty equipment. The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors regularly visit the Natanz site, reported that of 9,000 centrifuges there, fewer than 6,000 were operational — a 30 percent drop in capacity compared to a year ago. There is speculation that the centrifuges were damaged by other equipment sold to Iran by Western intelligence agencies using straw companies.