Israel finds new ally to stop Iran N-bomb

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Editor

Israel has enlisted the help of the Muslim central Asian state of Kazakhstan, once a key part of the old Soviet nuclear arsenal, in its campaign to stop Iran from making or acquiring a nuclear bomb.

This unusual alliance emerged after the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, publicly hinted that Israel was ready to renounce its own nuclear weapons if a comprehensive peace was achieved in the Middle East.

Mr Peres this week signed joint agreements on health, agriculture, investment and the environment with the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, on an official visit to Israel. But the real talking was done earlier between the Kazakh leader and Israel's Foreign Minister, Ehud Barak.

Mr Barak told President Nazarbayev that Israeli intelligence assessments indicated Iran intended to get hold of a simple nuclear weapon by 2001.

He said the Israelis believed Iran was trying to bring in experts from the former Soviet Union and was also involved in negotiations with criminal elements, probably among the various mafias which have sprung up across the former Soviet republics.

Iran denies that it intends to acquire nuclear weapons and maintains that its nuclear programme is intended exclusively for peaceful development. Western intelligence agencies believe that an inner cabinet in Tehran oversees a secret Iranian project to get a nuclear weapon.

President Nazarbayev told the Israelis he was working to curb Iranian influence in his vast, landlocked territory. But he insisted on the usefulness of continued political contacts with the President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the clerical leadership of Iran.

The removal of nuclear materials from Kazakhstan, and its accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) were critical security issues for the West after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Since Kazakhstan has now voluntarily given up the nuclear weapons once stationed on its soil, the Israelis calculate that it would be very unhappy to see Iran get the bomb.

The very fact of President Nazarbayev's visit to the Zionist state shows that the Kazakh political establishment rejects the Islamic revolutionary theology of Iran, although links between the two Muslim nations are inevitably close.

Israel, unlike Iran, has not signed the NPT and foreign experts believe it has up to 200 warheads available for use on its Jericho missile.

But Mr Peres came near to departing from the usual Israeli ambiguity about his country's nuclear resources just before Christmas, when he said: "Give me peace and we will give up the atom. That's the whole story. If we achieve regional peace, I think we can make the Middle East free of any nuclear threat."

The statement caused political controversy in Israel but it was clearly designed to ward off continuing pressure on the nuclear issue from Egypt and other Arab partners in the Middle East peace negotiations.

Israel's position is that it will sign the NPT only two years after a comprehensive peace is achieved in the Middle East, including such unlikely participants as Iran, Iraq and Libya. Arab critics take this as a formula for indefinite delay.