Speakers examine security, nuclear threat in South Bay talk

In a world seething with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, what is the wisest strategy for the United States and Israel in dealing with so-called rogue nations?

Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), the only U.S. senator of Arab descent, and Michael Nacht, the dean of U.C. Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy, discussed those threats Sunday of last week at a forum at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

The two-hour session, which drew an audience of about 100, was sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in San Francisco. The speakers focused on dangers from Iran and Iraq.

Iran, with its dedicated nuclear weapons program, remains a long-term threat to stability, said Nacht, a professor of public policy at the Goldman School. Both he and Abraham, whose grandparents immigrated to the United States from Lebanon, cited the dangers of Russian technology sales to Iran.

"Clinton has tried since 1993 to terminate Iran's relationship with the Russians, without success," Nacht said. "Selling to Iran is lucrative for the Russians. It gives them stature in their foreign dealings.

"And Iran gets assistance from North Korea, who is in the business of selling advanced missile systems." Although Iran is engaging in an internal debate about moving closer to the West, he said, the country "remains extremely anti-Israeli."

Referring to the ongoing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Nacht said President "Clinton's top foreign-policy priority is to achieve a peaceful settlement in the Middle East. He is no lame duck. I predict a great effort to make that happen."

Nacht's potential nightmare takes the form of massive weapons — nuclear, chemical and biological — as well as missiles. The greatest threats? Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya, he said.

"When the Gulf War started in 1991, the CIA estimated that Iraq had a single underground [nuclear] facility. After the war, we found 25 facilities. They would have had a deliverable nuclear warhead by April 1991. This is not theoretical or abstract; this is real."

Yet in 1998, when the United States bombed Iraqi targets, "only the British supported us," he said. U.S. failure to pay U.N. dues, he added, was "a major factor" in the lack of support.

Nacht said Syria regards chemical weapons as "protection" against Israel, but has virtually no biological capability.

The Libyans are the least competent, he said, with a tiny infrastructure and no nuclear capability. Libyan leader Moammar "Khadafy 'shops' [for weapons], but even China says no to him. Libya does have a deployed chemical weapons capability."

Legislators' defeat of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was a setback, in Nacht's opinion. "Even flawed, it would have been far better than no agreement at all." Nacht said it was only the second treaty signed by a sitting president to go down to defeat. (In 1920, the Versailles Treaty ending World War I was derailed by Woodrow Wilson's opponents, setting the stage for World War II.)

Abraham voted against ratification of the test ban treaty.

Nacht called the international proliferation of weapons of mass destruction "a metastasizing cancer." The United States and Israel need sufficient military capability to counteract this threat, he said.

While Israel has better military capability — including nuclear and possibly thermonuclear warheads — than all of the other Middle Eastern countries combined, he said, "no amount of deterrence works against a maniac."

Abraham, who spoke briefly before leaving to catch a plane, focused much of his talk on the topic of immigration. The chairman of the Senate's Immigration Subcommittee, Abraham said he is committed to blocking "punitive" immigration reform.

Also, he warned against hate groups disguised as objective "think tanks," with innocuous names such as Center for Immigration Reform. "We must work hard to see that they fail," he said.

Abraham thanked AIPAC for its research and information, which he said helped him make his case effectively in support of the Wye peace accord.

He also underscored his commitment to funding the implementation of the Wye accord. "If we fulfill our amounts, the process will move forward. It is vital to support Israel."

He also voiced support for a strong U.S. presence in the larger world. "I hope [presidential] candidates will step up, and the U.S. will not withdraw behind its borders," he said.

Regarding the current topic of reparations to Holocaust survivors and their heirs, Abraham said, "I believe no consideration should be given to taxing the reparations or benefits of Holocaust survivors."

Following prepared remarks by the speakers, the audience posed numerous questions to Nacht.

Should we bomb nuclear plants in Iraq?

Ineffective, said Nacht, since specialized equipment to make fissile material for bombs can be stored underground, and "we can be wildly off" target.

Antiballistic missile defense?

"Like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet — when you don't know where it's coming from," he said. "Very tough. And no matter how many defensive missiles you build, it's always cheaper to build a few more offensive missiles. Plus, a substantial defense capability gives an incentive to strike preemptively."

Suitcase bombs? "

Law enforcement must be better trained," he suggested. "The Japanese police knew about the group that released sarin gas in the subway, but they didn't share their information with intelligence" organizations.

Other threats?

"Ten thousand containers a day come through Hoboken, N.J., alone. We can't actually open 10,000 containers." The United States, he said, is a "sieve."

Is MAD (mutual assured destruction) a valid strategy between Israel and Iran?

"It is always preferable to encourage economic penetration," said Nacht. "That is the chemo that can kill the nuclear tumor."