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IRAN, ISRAEL: Locked in potentially deadly dance

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Iran and Israel are at it again. After a few weeks of calm that saw oil prices drop and concern cool about a third hot war breaking out in the Middle East, tensions are building again.

The latest brouhaha began with a comment by an Israeli minister that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be the target of a kidnapping by the Mossad. This new row between Iran and Israel brought back to the forefront the issue of the Islamic Republic’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.

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In an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, Rafi Eitan, a minister in the Israeli Cabinet and an ex-Mossad agent who was once in charge of hunting down and kidnapping former Nazi war criminals, said:

It could very well be that a leader such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suddenly finds himself before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

When the interviewer asked Eitan whether he meant that ‘seriously,’ he answered: ‘Absolutely. Those who spread poison and want to eradicate another people has to expect such consequences.’

The Iranians took the declarations as threats. They complained by addressing a letter Tuesday to the United Nations secretary-general:

These dangerous threats ... not only constitute manifest violations of international law and contravene the most fundamental principles of the Charter of the United Nations, but are against the basic values of the civilized world.

In all likelihood, both sides are posturing ahead of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session in about 10 days. That’s when world powers will begin discussing a fourth round of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to stop enriching uranium, a key process in the development of an atomic bomb as well as a peaceful civilian energy program.

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Israel promptly snapped back. In a statement Wednesday, Israel’s new U.N. ambassador, Gabriela Shalev, called Iran’s complaint ‘absurd’:

Iran’s president repeatedly denies the Holocaust and calls — again and again — for the destruction of the state of Israel.... [Ahmadinejad leads a country] that develops nuclear capabilities endangering the entire world.... As such, Iran is under United Nations sanctions for its non-compliance with the international community.... Furthermore, Iran openly and actively supports and arms terrorist organizations.

Shalev also urged the international community to stay focused on the Iranian nuclear issue.

The United States, for its part, continues to tighten the screws on Iran. On Wednesday, U.S. officials said they would impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, or IRISL, and 18 affiliated companies for helping Iran advance its nuclear weapons program.

Stuart Levey, U.S. undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement:

Not only does IRISL facilitate the transport of cargo for U.N.-designated proliferators, it also falsifies documents and uses deceptive schemes to shroud its involvement in illicit commerce.... IRISL’s actions are part of a broader pattern of deception and fabrication that Iran uses to advance its nuclear and missile programs.

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The shipping company rejected the U.S. claims as unfounded.

Although the U.S. apparently still considers economic pressure the primary means of slowing Iran’s drive toward perfecting advanced nuclear technology, not so Israel. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the Americans have made clear to the Israelis lately that Jerusalem does not have a green light from Washington for an attack on Iran.

The newspaper said in its Thursday edition that for the last few months the United States has declined to give Israel ‘a large number of ‘bunker-buster’ bombs, permission to use an air corridor to Iran, an advanced technological system and refueling planes.’

Haaretz said the refusal came out of concern that Israel would use the aid to attack nuclear facilities in Iran.

With a new U.S. administration taking office next year, the question of whether Israel will ever strike Iran with Washington’s approval remains open.

Sarah Palin, the vice presidential running mate of Republican candidate John McCain, called for a hands-off approach to Israel if it decided to strike Iranian nuclear facilities.

‘We cannot second-guess the steps that Israel has to take to defend itself,’ she said in a televised interview with ABC News. She warned that nuclear weapons under the control of Ahmadinejad would be ‘extremely dangerous to everyone on this globe.’

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Raed Rafei and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

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