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Sunday, September 27, 1998 Published at 20:15 GMT 21:15 UK

World: Middle East

Israeli MP calls for strike against Iran

The Shehab-3 missile is capable of striking Israel

By John King

A leading member of the opposition Labour party in Israel has said the government should consider a pre-emptive strike against the recently developed Shehab-3 missiles in Iran.

The Israeli member of parliament, Ephraim Sneh - who is a leading member of the Israeli Labour Party and still serves as a general in Israel's reserve forces - said in a TV interview on Sunday, that international efforts to block Iran's development of long range missiles and nuclear weapons have failed.

Israel, he said, must consider an attempt to destroy Iran's missile capacity before it becomes active.

As he put it: "I am talking about the possibility, if we have no choice, of a pre-emptive strike with conventional weapons."

Previous strikes against Iraq

Israelis recall that in 1980 Israel destroyed Iraq's nuclear research centre in a conventional air strike.

Most, however, are aware that such a strike today would run the risk of bringing international condemnation down on Israel at a time when the Middle East peace process is in a very delicate position.

Discounting moderate Iran

[ image: Israel is worried about Iran's military capabilities]
Israel is worried about Iran's military capabilities
There has been no explicit threat against Israel by Iran.

But Mr Sneh discounted the relatively moderate tone of recent political pronouncements by Iran's President Khatami, suggesting that it is not necessarily the president and the foreign minister who decide the direction of Iran's foreign policy.

Analysts note that at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference meeting in Tehran last December President Khatami called for a dialogue between the Muslim world and the West.

But at the same time Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini, who has ultimate control over Iran's armed forces and foreign policy, was opposed to any détente.

Pressing for anti-missile weapons

[ image: US Patriot missile systems in an undisclosed area of Israel]
US Patriot missile systems in an undisclosed area of Israel
This is not the first time in recent days that Israeli politicians have voiced such fears.

A week ago, four Israeli parliamentarians on a visit to Washington are reported to have told American officials that Israel could not currently defend itself against missile attacks.

On this occasion, however, the supposed aggressor named by the Israelis was Iraq.

Israel's message to the United States was that it should not delay in helping Israel to put an effective anti-ballistic missile system into place.

Netanyahu warns of 'exceptional' means

The Israeli government, for its part, has tried to play down the apparent threat.

As Mr Sneh gave voice to his forebodings, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking in New York, claimed that Israel has what he called "exceptional" means to counter the challenge from Iran, but conceded that - as he put it - "a strategic threat is emerging."

But the chairman of the Israeli Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, Uzi Landau, called Mr Sneh's warning "unnecessary chatter", which - as he said - could make Israel a "higher-priority target".

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