Today's date:
Summer 1995

Old Fanaticism, Modern Weapons

Shimon Peres is the foreign minister of Israel. In a wide-ranging interview with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels, Peres talked about the Iranian bomb, the role of Israel's nuclear capability in the Middle-East and how "the global television culture" threatens Judaism more than the Arab states.

NPQ: The United States has launched a campaign for international sanctions against Iran because, the Administration charges that it is "an outlaw state" trying to obtain a nuclear bomb and to wreck the Middle East peace process with terrorism. Is Iran the main state actively trying to undermine peace?

SHIMON PERES: Yes. Iran has adopted the Machiavellian dogma that communism did: The goals justify any means. So they kill, they cheat, they subvert. They finance and train Hamas and Hezbollah in an effort to export their fanatic ideology. We know it, yet they deny it at the same time as they publicly proclaim the need to destroy Israel. For them, Israel is a kind of collective Salman Rushdie.

And now they want a nuclear bomb. If there is one country in the world that does not need the civilian nuclear power they claim they want only for energy, it is Iran. They have all the cheap oil they need and nuclear power is expensive,

If there is one lesson to be learned from World War Il it is that danger arises not from the possession of military arms, but from the state of mind of a man like Hitler and the weakness of the West in not comprehending the intentions that flow from such a state of mind. Aside from the US at the moment, the rest of the West is making the same mistake about Iran.

It is not an overstatement to say that after the collapse of communism, the kind of fundamentalism coming from Iran is the greatest danger in our time. It has a ready audience - 1.3 billion Muslims spread around the world, mostly mired in poverty and illiteracy.

For the first time in history, a fanatic movement can get hold of modern weapons, including the kind of chemical weapons of mass destruction used by a small group in the Tokyo subway. The Inquisition didn't have chemical or biological weapons; Hitler didn't have the atom bomb. I can imagine no greater danger than the combination of old fanaticism and modern weapons. Let's handle this storm before it breaks.

NPQ: The Khomeini revolution is old and ailing. So many people in Iran seem to be living double lives: Teen-age girls may listen to American heavy-metal rock music at home, but, in fear of the religious police, wear the chador out on the street. As with the Soviet Union, systems in which the whole society must live a lie can collapse overnight. Is Iran really a threat the world does not comprehend, or a hollow revolution destined for history's dustbin?

PERES: A race is on between self-destruction and the destruction of others. We don't know which will win first. That is what makes Iran so dangerous.

NPQ: It is estimated by some of the more alarmed analysts that Iran could possess a nuclear capability within five years. As a man closely associated with building Israel's own nuclear capability, do you see signs they are that close to building the bomb?

PERES: It depends on three things: how many scientists and engineers they can obtain formally and informally; how much nuclear material and equipment they can smuggle; and when they can build the reactors. When they build a gas-centrifuge (necessary to enrich uranium), they will have established capability.

So the time frame depends on how quickly and how successfully the Iranians can obtain the necessary experts, know-how and material from abroad. Already 150 Russian scientists and engineers who are highly sophisticated in the nuclear field are working in Iran. This, Russian President Boris Yeltsin did not know until presented with the facts (by outside powers). It is also unclear what China's real policy is in assisting Iran. We also have hard evidence of Iranian attempts to buy radioactive material, and they are offering a very high price.

NPQ: Are the scientists the Iranians have hired at the level of Ernst Bergmann, the father of Israel's nuclear capability?

PERES: Ernst Bergmann was a scientist. Scientists have knowledge and information, which today are much more widespread. So building a nuclear capacity is now more an engineering than a scientific problem. And the Iranians have the engineers they need.

NPQ: You are in some sense the shepherd of Israel's nuclear capability, going back to your 1956 visit to Paris with David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan to secure French help in building reactors at Dimona. How does your career-long effort to build an Israeli nuclear capability square with the new realities of the peace process in the Middle East?

PERES: They are complementary. First, it enables us to be more flexible on the territorial side because of the deterrent, or because we are considered to have a deterrent. Second, we can now say clearly that we can have a Middle East free of nuclear weapons provided we have a belligerentfree Middle East. It is like a two-story building. The first story is the end of belligerence, the second story is denuclearization. You cannot build the second story until you finish constructing the first.

NPQ: Reportedly, Israeli nuclear missiles were aimed to deter the Soviet Union so that it would constrain its Arab clients from going too far in a military assault on Israel. Since the Soviet Union no longer exists, where is the aim of your deterrent?

PERES: Today, non-conventional arms are not only nuclear, but chemical and biological. We don't see any reason to tell a country that might attack Israel with chemical and biological weapons that "don't you worry, you can attack us and nothing will happen." Their suspicion is our deterrent.

NPQ: Though the peace process may end belligerence with Israel's Arab neighbors, Iran will still be out there. When and if they obtain a nuclear bomb and long-range missiles from China, won't you need the deterrent against them?

PERES: Yes. And for many Arab states, though they wouldn't admit it, our deterrent is the only guarantee of their security against Iran.

NPQ: At the end of your just-published memoirs, Battling for Peace, you make the surprising observation that as peace settles into the Middle East, Judaism faces a new threat: Global television culture is undermining the Hebrew language that ties Judaism together. In a strange sort of way, will mass American culture spun out of Hollywood be a greater danger to Judaism than hostile Arab states? Already, you can hardly tell teens in Tel Aviv apart from their cousins in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Without the Hebrew language, won't Israel become a cultural suburb of America?

PERES: I agree. Today there are five million Hebrewspeaking people. Never in history have we had so many. In the past, the cultural boundaries were smaller and reading and writing could hold together the people of the Book. Never before have we had to sustain the culture for such vast numbers of people-who are at the same time an audience for global television.

So, we would like to do two things. First, all Jewish people should adopt Hebrew as their second language. Second, in spite of the influence of television, we need to make an effort to translate more books into Hebrew. True, this may only concern an elite, but a "deciding elite."

Economically, these days, there is no national sovereignty. Strategically, borders are becoming meaningless. Scientifically, only the globe and the universe matter.

What is left that is ours? Culture and historical memories expressed in our language. A country is not just some land within borders, it must have spiritual and moral identity. just as we have concentrated so much on defending our borders, we must concentrate on defending our heritage.

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