President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has gained unlikely supporters amid spreading unrest in Iran: officials in Israel, a country he wants to eliminate.
Meir Dagan, chief of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, told a closed Knesset committee hearing that Mr. Ahmadinejad's reputation as a Holocaust-denying rabble-rouser makes it easier for Israel to enlist international support against Iran's nuclear program, a committee member said. A victory for Mr. Ahmadinejad's moderate challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, in last week's presidential elections would have presented Israel with "a graver problem," Mr. Dagan said.
Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence. The committee member said Mr. Dagan estimated that Tehran -- where ultimate power is wielded by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- could produce its first nuclear bomb by 2014.
Israeli officials in the past have raised the possibility of a pre-emptive military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, and pressed for tough international sanctions. On Wednesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio that "Iran is in the midst of a very dangerous process."
Tehran insists that its nuclear program is strictly peaceful. As Iranian prime minister in the 1980s, Mr. Mousavi jump-started Iran's nuclear drive, which has been accelerated under Mr. Ahmadinejad, Israeli officials say.
"Both of them pose the same threat. But it's better for Israel that you have a leader [in Iran] with a very dangerous ideology who speaks clearly so that nobody can ignore him," said Knesset deputy speaker Danny Danon, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.
A more careful, soft-spoken Iranian president who promised better relations with the West "would have made it harder for us to recruit the world to our side," Mr. Danon added.
Mr. Mousavi and his reformist supporters, who hold daily protests in Iran, say Mr. Ahmadinejad stole the election. These concerns were endorsed by several Western leaders.
On this crucial point, however, Mr. Dagan seemed to agree with Iran's president: In the Knesset committee presentation, Mossad's chief dismissed the alleged ballot-stuffing in Iran as no worse than the fraud that occurs during elections in liberal democracies world-wide. The Iranian protest movement, he predicted, will fizzle in days, the committee member said.
Israel would do well to pin no hopes on political change in Tehran, said former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy. While the recent turmoil might temporarily weaken Tehran's support for Israel's Arab foes, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, he said, they will have no effect on the strategic problem of Iran's nuclear weapons.
Israeli officials' strategic view has irked some liberal commentators on Iran. They say this policy -- which ignores the tremendous sympathy that the Tehran protesters have garnered around the world -- is simplistic and narrow-minded.
Mr. Ahmadinejad's antics over the past four years, while fueling anti-Israeli sentiment across the Muslim world, have failed to persuade European nations to accept Israel's calls for sanctions against Tehran, said Meir Litvak, senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies. "There is a diminishing return from Ahmadinejad's image. We may need to use more nuance than a black-and-white policy of the worse the better."
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