French President Jacques Chirac started quite the uproar with his apparent faux pas made public on Thursday in which he downplayed the Iranian nuclear threat. Chirac says he thought he was speaking off the record when, during an interview with The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Le Nouvel Observateur, he said an Iranian nuclear weapon would not be much of a threat because "Tehran would be razed to the ground" if it ever tried to deploy such a device. Chirac's comments (which were quickly retracted) directly undermine the West's stance on Iran — and they do not reflect the official French position, which was summed up Thursday in a statement from the Elysee Palace that read "France, with the international community, cannot accept the prospect of Iran with a nuclear weapon." There is a possibility that Chirac is following a strategy to reach out to Iran and bring France to the fore in resolving the nuclear controversy. Private discussions within the Iranian ruling Cabinet reveal that Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov's recent visit to Tehran was successful in Russia’s efforts to mediate between the United States and Iran. With Russia already in the spotlight, Chirac could have been signaling to Tehran with an implicit acceptance of an Iranian nuclear program that France, too, is worthy of a seat at the negotiating table. But despite the commotion, Chirac's statements are not all that far off the mark. It might be tempting to write off the Iranians or North Koreans as "axis of evil" regimes that are just crazy enough to cook off a nuke, but Tehran — like all rational actors — knows the implications and the utility
of a nuclear program. A nuclear-capable Iran would primarily use its nuclear program, not to turn Israel into a radioactive wasteland, but for deterrent value to safeguard the clerical regime from possible U.S or Israeli intervention. Israel, however, does not care to gamble on the rationality of the Iranian regime, and does not intend to see an Iranian nuclear weapons program come to fruition. The Israelis, therefore, have their own ways of dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. A pre-emptive Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities is unlikely in the near future for a number of reasons that we have discussed before
, including the time Israel still has before Iran reaches a technologically critical stage in its nuclear development, the strategically dispersed nature of Iran's nuclear sites and the tenuous U.S. position in Iraq
. An offensive strike on Iran would still leave wide open the issue of a resolution in Iraq, which would further constrain the U.S. military position in the region. But while the time for overt military action is likely still in the distance, Israeli covert action against Iran appears to be gaining steam. The death of a high-level Iranian nuclear scientist, Ardeshir Hassanpour, was announced by Radio Farda and Iranian state television Jan. 25 — a week after his death occurred. The Radio Farda report implicitly related the cause for Hassanpour's death to exposure to radioactive rays, though the details were murky. STRATFOR sources close to Israeli intelligence have revealed, however, that Hassanpour was in fact a Mossad target. Hassanpour is believed to have been one of Iran's most prized nuclear scientists. Some reports claim he was named the best scientist in the military field in Iran in 2003, that he directed and founded the center for nuclear electromagnetic studies since 2005 and that he co-founded the Nuclear Technology Center in Isfahan, where Iran's uranium-conversion facilities are located. Decapitating a hostile nuclear program by taking out key human assets is a tactic that has proven its effectiveness over the years, particularly in the case of Iraq. In the months leading up to the 1981 Israeli airstrike on Iraq's Osirak reactor — which was believed to be on the verge of producing plutonium for a weapons program — at least three Iraqi nuclear scientists died under mysterious circumstances. Yahya al-Meshad, a key figure in Iraq's nuclear program, traveled to Paris in 1980 to test fuel for the reactor; he was soon stabbed to death and was discovered by a hotel maid in his room the next morning. A prostitute who went by the name Marie Express reportedly saw the scientist the night before he died. She was then killed in a hit-and-run accident by an unknown driver who got away. After al-Meshad's death, two more Iraqi scientists were killed separately — both by poisoning — and a number of workers at Osirak began receiving threatening letters from a shadowy organization called the Committee to Safeguard the Islamic Revolution — likely a Mossad front to enhance the workers' paranoia and hinder Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions. Mossad's latest covert assassination campaign falls in line with Israel's psychological warfare
strategy to undermine Iran's confidence in pursuing its nuclear agenda. The longer the Iranians are forced to second-guess Israel's intent to launch a pre-emptive strike, the more pliable Iran becomes in negotiating with the United States toward a political agreement on Iraq. Tehran wants, ideally, to secure a Shiite buffer zone in Iraq while also reaching the point of no return in its nuclear program; but the Iranian regime must move carefully on the nuclear issue to avoid inviting airstrikes on its soil. Israel and the United States are betting for now that Iran's concerns over Iraq will override its pursuit of nuclear power — which, however, leaves Tehran in a prime position to use the nuclear controversy as a major bargaining tool in extracting concessions from the United States over Iraq. But things do not always go as planned, and Israel appears to be setting the stage for Plan B.