Sunday Telegraph: Iran is developing nuclear missiles capable of reaching beyond its enemies in the Middle East to Europe, President George Bush will be warned when he visits Israel and the Palestinian territories for the first time since entering the White House. The Sunday Telegraph
By Carolynne Wheeler in Jerusalem
Iran is developing nuclear missiles capable of reaching beyond its enemies in the Middle East to Europe, President George Bush will be warned when he visits Israel and the Palestinian territories for the first time since entering the White House.
A senior Israeli cabinet minister has told The Sunday Telegraph that his government is convinced Iran is intent on becoming the first Muslim superpower, with weapons capable of striking not only at Israel but also Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia as well as Greece and other parts of south-eastern Europe.
The Israeli government is furious about the recent US intelligence assessment which concluded that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, and hopes to convince the American leader that work is continuing on a bomb that poses a widespread threat.
In an exclusive interview, Avi Dichter, the Israeli minister of public security, warned that Iran was developing missiles with a range of more than 1,250 miles.
“Iran is a big, strong rich country, and that competition in leading the Muslim world is well-known to all Arab and Muslim countries,” he said.
“Once you can reach with your missile double the distance between Iran and Israel, it means there is some farther target. Is it Egypt? Libya? Saudi Arabia? A European country?”
The Israeli intelligence community insists there is no proof that Iran has abandoned its weapons programme indefinitely.
Mr Dichter said it was working to develop missiles with a range that suggested ambitions beyond threatening Israel.
He said Israeli officials would warn Mr Bush that failing to take action would have serious consequences beyond the Middle East, where Iran was funding groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
The Sunday Telegraph revealed last year how Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were spending billions of pounds on upgrading their armed forces to contain the growing threat from Iran.
Mr Bush, who is due to arrive on Wednesday, hopes to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations launched at the Annapolis summit in Maryland in late November.
But talks have made little or no progress since, with Israeli officials accusing the Palestinians of not doing enough to dismantle militant groups.
Instead, Israel has prepared a long list of concerns for Mr Bush, including those over the US intelligence estimate and the need for peace talks with Syria.
Mr Dichter said Israel wanted to bring Syria out of the Iranian “axis” of influence towards a peace treaty, which would mirror Israel’s 1979 peace agreement with Egypt.
Peace with Syria would reduce Hezbollah’s influence, force Hamas’s leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal, who now lives in Damascus, to relocate, and improve Israel’s image and standing in the Arab world.
Mr Bush is expected to spend two to three days meeting separately with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian authority president, and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, before going to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Mr Dichter said, however, that there was almost no hope of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord this year, and that a major operation against Hamas and other Islamist groups in Gaza would eventually be needed.
He added that the Palestinian authority’s loss of Gaza to Hamas in June showed it was not ready to take full control of security in an eventual state, and that Gaza must be brought back under control before a Palestinian state is created.
The Palestinian authority has deployed hundreds of extra troops in Nablus and Bethlehem as the start of a crackdown on militant groups, and Mr Dichter’s Palestinian counterpart, the interior minister Abdel-Razek al-Yahya, said last week it had dismantled the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a violent Fatah offshoot.
Palestinians also argue, however, that their efforts to crack down on militant groups are hampered by Israel’s refusal to permit them to be properly equipped.