Israeli spies' cover is blown

Key intelligence sources have been exposed along with Russia's missile aid to Iran, report Mark Dennis and Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem
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An attempt to stop Iran developing missiles which could threaten Israel has compromisedUS and Israeli intelligence sources in Russia and Iran.

Details of an Israeli intelligence report were recently leaked in Washington to persuade the Americans to put pressure on Russia, which is helping Iran with its missile programme. But it was a leak too far: the report was so precise that it led to the exposure of those who had provided the information it contained. Their fate is unknown.

The report detailed how the Shihab 3, a liquid-fuel missile built by Iran with Russian aid, with a range of 800 to 930 miles and a 1,650lb warhead, was on the verge of completion. It gave the names of senior Russian officials involved and identified the Russian companies working on the project. US intelligence agencies were even shown a copy of a $7m (pounds 4.16m) contract between a Russian company and the Iranian organisation in charge of the missile project.

Israeli officials say the leaking of the report severely damaged Israeli intelligence operations in Iran and Russia. "From the intelligence point of view, it hurt," said a senior Israeli military official. "American efforts were compromised [as well]." Not only are previous sources no longer available, but Iranian and Russian vigilance has much increased.

There is little doubt about the motive for the leak. Israel believes that if Iran produces the Shihab 3 - and within six to eight months, it says, Iran could go ahead without Russian assistance - then the strategic situation in the Middle East will change. "It will turn Iran into a regional superpower," an Israeli official said. The Shihab 3, which could hit Tel Aviv, would dent Israel's monopoly of strategic weapons, based on 100-plus nuclear warheads and the Jericho missiles to deliver them in the Middle East.

There is a further reason why Israel wants to put intense pressure on President Bill Clinton to compel President Boris Yeltsin to stop helping Iran. The project has become Russia's ticket back into the Middle East as a power willing to supply weapons and to stand up to Israel and the US. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow has always ultimately crumbled under pressure from Washington. But when Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, tried to persuade Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primaylov, on a visit to Israel last week, not to aid Iran, the Russians blandly denied that they knew what he was talking about.

Details of what Israel knew about the Iranian missile deal first surfaced in the right-wing Washington Times on 10 September, saying that the Israeli report had been "given to the CIA and the Pentagon". The article was by Bill Gertz, known for the excellence of his sources in the agency. However, the report might have come direct from Israeli intelligence officials hoping to influence the American media and Congress against aid for Russia so long as it helps Iran.

In the suspicious world of Israeli intelligence a third possibility is not discounted. The report was published just as Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, was starting her first visit to the Middle East. Could it be that Mr Netanyahu had decided that this was an opportune moment to go public on Iranian missiles? This is probably paranoia. The more obvious explanation is that the report really was leaked in the US. "Part of the Israeli modus operandi is to find allies in Washington - the CIA or Congress - to bring a favourable decision in their interest," said Ephraim Inbar, an Israeli political scientist.

The need for allies in Washington may have seemed all the greater because President Clinton has shown there are limits to how far he will go in pressuring President Yeltsin. The administration has warned Israel against trying to get Congress to cut aid to Russia. "The Russians see a strategic opportunity to take advantage of American reluctance to act against them," said an Israeli official.

Is Israel in real danger from Iran? Despite its protestations about Iran's evil machinations, Israel was perfectly willing to supply sophisticated arms to that country during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. "Iran only uses anti-Israel rhetoric as a justification for the revolution. It's not interested in helping the Arabs," said Mohammed Shyyab, a Jordanian general who took part last week in a conference on missile proliferation at Israel's Galili Centre for National and Strategic Security. "Why should Iran have an incentive to fire a missile at Israel?"

There is no doubt that Israel wants to prevent Iran acquiring weapons by which it could project its power in the Middle East. It has invested much political capital in getting the US to talk Russia and China out of aiding Iran. But this policy now appears to be failing. American efforts to contain Iran are weakening - when Total, the French oil company, signed a $2bn contract to develop Iranian gasfields Washington could do nothing in the face of retaliation from the EU.

For some years European governments have nervously looked for signs that Israel might feel it has a military option. In 1981 Israeli bombers destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, known as Osirak. Israeli officials say that time is short, because the Shihab 3 will be ready in 18 months, but such an elaborate programme as the Iranian missile project would be difficult to destroy, and Iran would certainly find some way of retaliating.

In 1991 Iraq was able to hit Tel Aviv with out-of-date Scud missiles fired from its western desert, despite all the efforts of the US air force and American-manned Patriot anti-missile batteries in Israel. Ever since, Israel and other countries in the Middle East have appreciated how a few long-range missiles can bring a real change in the balance of power in the region. This is probably why somebody was willing to reveal Russia's role in developing Iranian missiles, regardless of the damage to Israeli intelligence.