Iran-Based Al Qaeda Threat Much Closer than Shehab-3

Israel has more cause for concern from the presence of senior al Qaeda operatives in Iran than from the prospect of Iran shooting a Shehab-3 medium-range missile any time soon, despite the handover ceremony Iran’s bellicose spiritual leader Ali Khamenei staged with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on July 20. According to debkafile‘s military experts, the missile is not yet operational; neither is it precise enough or capable of delivering an unconventional warhead. The Shehab-3 will need another two years at least to be ready for service. Only then, will Israel’s anti-missile Arrow missile system be required to live up to the Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz’s encomium, that the Arrow is Israel’s answer to the Iranian missile.
Meanwhile, the Shehab-3 is meanwhile grounded by two daunting obstacles:
A. The final version of the missile’s engine is far from complete; tests are still running on various North Korean versions including the Nodong-1 upgraded with Russian technology and Iranian improvements. debkafile‘s intelligence sources report that Iranian missile engineers and operators went to North Korea at the end of June to speed delivery of the new engine parts ordered and paid for last year, after the first version engine proved faulty. Some of the missiles test-fired crashed shortly after launch.
While pressing for delivery of the engine parts, Tehran is cocking an anxious ear to the war of words flying between Washington and Pyongyang. Iran’s leaders fear that sooner or later the disputants will come to an understanding over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program rather than letting it slide into outright confrontation. For Iran’s program, this spells curtains in more than one way.
1. The moment North Korea’s nuclear program accepts a regime of controls and limitations, the full blast of international heat, especially from Washington, will veer round to compel the Iranians to fall in line and give up the development of a nuclear bomb.
2. North Korea will be bound under such an agreement by non-proliferation clauses banning the export of nuclear and missile technologies alike. Once the Pyongyang door is slammed, Iran can forget about North Korean assistance in bringing its ballistic missile engines up to scratch. Tehran is therefore racing to get what it can out of North Korea before Pyongyang resoles its dispute with the Washington.
B. The Iranian program faces another major hurdle. Their twin object is to produce enough enriched uranium for the manufacture of nuclear bombs and warheads by the latter half of 2005, also completing the development of dependable engines for their ballistic missiles in the same time frame. If all goes according to plan, Tehran will by that date have a nuclear weapon plus several missiles for delivering it. However, it is hard to imagine the United States and/or Israel allowing the Islamic Republic to reach that point unopposed.
These difficulties place the Shehab-3 menace in the middle distance and bring the Iran-based al Qaeda threat to the Middle East including Israel into much sharper focus.
The thinking in Jerusalem is that since the Islamic theocrats did not scruple to give al Qaeda logistical backing from their towns for the May 12 string of suicide attacks against Riyadh, they will be as willing to help the same terrorists mount strikes against Israel. Tuesday, July 22, Tehran again denied granting the network’s leading lights sanctuary, contradicting President George W. Bush’s accusation the day before that Syria and Iran harbored and assisted terrorists. He also warned them they would be held accountable.
No one knows for sure if Iran’s al Qaeda “guests” are enjoying a comfortable form of detention or are preparing the next wave of terrorist attacks with local connivance. (See also earlier debkafile story on this page.) The theory going round some circles in Washington is that Iran’s logistical aid in the Riyadh attacks was meant to hint to the US government at the extent of damage the Iranians are capable of causing US interests in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East if the heat is not reduced on the nuclear issue.
Israel is keeping a very close eye on the Jordanian-born terror master Mussab Zarqawi, who just before the Iraq War was assigned, according to Israeli security sources, with executing a 9/11-scale attack in Israel. Six months ago, Zarqawi was sighted several times in Damascus, Beirut and places in Western Europe. He always went back to Iran after what are believed to have been recruiting missions for the attack from among the al Qaeda group sheltering in southern Lebanon and operatives who infiltrated Israel and the West Bank.
Zarqawi could not have moved around south Lebanon without the knowledge and assent of Syrian army intelligence and the Iran-backed Hizballah.
There is nothing to say that Zarqawi back in Iran ever gave up preparing for his Israel assignment. If such an operation is indeed afoot, then the Iran-based al Qaeda would be a greater and more tangible threat to Israel than any semi-functioning Iranian missile.
US-Israel Postscript
debkafile‘s Washington sources disclose that President Bush’s accusations against Syria and Iran on Monday were also meant for the ears of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who has been invited for talks in the White House on July 29. On Friday, July 25, the Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas will be received by the US president in Washington for the first time. He is coming with a shopping list, at the top of which is a demand that Israel free a large number of terrorists from its prisons, including terrorists “with blood on their hands” and Hamas and Jihad Islami members.
Sharon, limited by government decisions from setting the latter categories loose, sought to create a diversion by developing an independent peace channel to Damascus. By attacking Syria as a sponsor of terrorists, Bush effectively blocked Sharon’s ploy. The implication is that if the Israeli leader is not too squeamish to do business with hard-line regimes like that of Bashar Assad which harbor al Qaeda and Hamas and Jihad Islami command centers, it can certainly bring itself to make concessions to the non-terrorist Abbas and his interior minister Dahlan.
There are indications that the Bush administration is cross with Sharon for his Syrian initiative and, to make things worse, using a UN official, Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen as his go-between. Bush has no great love for UN officials and even less for surprises, especially when they come from Sharon who until now worked in perfect harmony with the White House.
From the US capital, the Israeli prime minister is seen to be shutting out of his counsels his defense and foreign ministers, Shaul Mofaz and Silvan Shalom – both of whom he has found indiscreetly forthcoming to the media on government policy, and barricading himself behind a hard shell in readiness for his White House talks. Quite aside from the real concerns posed by al Qaeda in Iran, Syria and Lebanon, Bush advisers are intent on cracking the Israeli leader’s shell so as to bring him round to advancing the concessions on the list brought by Palestinian leaders.

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