Friday, July 21, 2006

Meanwhile, Iran gets on with its bomb

Telegraph-Just how much responsibility Teheran bears for initiating hostilities remains unclear, but certain facts are now emerging that indicate the timing of the Israeli soldiers' abduction was no coincidence. To start with, there is the visit Mr Larijani paid to Damascus last week after his discussions in Brussels with Javier Solana, the EU's foreign affairs representative, ended without agreement. Apart from fulfilling his duties as chief nuclear negotiator, Mr Larijani, a former Revolutionary Guards commander, is chairman of Iran's national security council and a close confidant of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spiritual guardian of the Islamic revolution and the driving force behind the attempts to acquire a nuclear weapons arsenal.

During his stay in the Syrian capital, Mr Larijani briefed Syrian intelligence officers about the nuclear talks and the latest developments in Iran's mutual defence co-operation with Damascus. Mr Larijani then met senior Hizbollah representatives.

The following day, Hizbollah launched its operation against Israel's northern border, kidnapping two soldiers and killing eight others. The operation had been more than a month in the planning, and Teheran dispatched a team of 20 Iranian Guard commanders to southern Lebanon in mid-June to oversee the preparations. There were also shipments of military equipment, including surface-to-surface and anti-ship missiles: the Iranians were well aware that Israel would not tolerate an attack on its northern border with impunity.

The Iranians will also have been surprised by the failure of the world's major powers to intervene. While there has been much criticism of Israel's "disproportionate" response, none of the leading powers feels inclined to act in any way that might be to Hizbollah's benefit. This is particularly true in America, where the Bush Administration has made it plain it is in no hurry to get involved, so long as the conflict is confined to its current parameters. The White House is well aware of Iran's sponsorship of Hizbollah, and has in effect given Jerusalem a free hand to do whatever it believes is necessary to destroy Hizbollah's effectiveness. The eradication of Iran's most important foreign ally would be a serious blow for the ayatollahs, and was clearly not one they took into their calculations when they precipitated this crisis.

But even if Teheran has overplayed its hand in southern Lebanon, Iran's leaders will console themselves that it is a sacrifice worth paying for the maintenance of its all-important uranium-enrichment programme.