Israel and Iran traded significantly escalated threats of military attacks in recent months as the FBI investigated allegations that a Pentagon official passed secret U.S. policy information about Iran to Israeli authorities.
Israel has warned that it could launch strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities to thwart the country's advancing weapons program. In response, Iranian Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said earlier this month: "If Israel should dare to attack our nuclear installations, we will come down on its head like a heavy hammer crushing its skull."
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Israeli officials have expressed more concern about the danger Iran poses and have been more emboldened in their threats to quash it. But the espionage allegations, which surfaced Friday, prompted a wave of vehement denials, political angst and disbelief among Israeli officials, intelligence experts, diplomats and other political analysts.
"It's hard to see this as such an issue of controversy or disagreement that Israel would say, 'Break all the rules because we have to find out what they're doing,' " said Yossi Alpher, a former official in the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency.
The FBI is investigating whether Lawrence A. Franklin, a career analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency who specializes in Iran, gave classified information to two lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, according to sources. U.S. officials said the information, which included the draft of a presidential directive on U.S. policies toward Iran, was then given to Israeli officials. AIPAC has denied any wrongdoing and said its employees were cooperating with the inquiry.
Newsweek magazine reported on its Web site Sunday that FBI agents had monitored a conversation between an Israeli Embassy official and an AIPAC lobbyist at lunch nearly 18 months ago. Another American, later identified as Franklin, "walked in" during the session, according to the report. At the time the FBI was looking into possible Israeli espionage, Newsweek said.
The investigation is the second in recent months involving allegations of Israeli espionage against an ally. In July, a New Zealand court found two Israeli men, accused of being agents for the Mossad, guilty of attempting to forge New Zealand passports. Israeli officials denied that the men were members of the Mossad, but New Zealand's prime minister announced diplomatic sanctions against Israel and demanded an apology.
Michael Oren, an Israeli historian, said Israel would have very little to gain by spying on the United States "because the relationship is so open and giving."
"Israel and the United States see very much eye to eye on the Iran threat, and the intelligence cooperation is extremely close -- it's on an unprecedented level," Oren said. "Both countries perceive Iran's future acquisition of nuclear weapons as a grave threat to the region and the world, and both are committed to trying to prevent Iran from going nuclear."
For months, Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, have warned Iran that Israel was prepared to take what Mofaz called "the necessary steps" to eliminate its nuclear capability. In 1981, Israeli bombers destroyed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in an effort to curtail then-President Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program.
In recent weeks, Israel and Iran have stepped up their rhetoric. Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani told al-Jazeera Arab television network this month that "Iran is not Iraq -- we will not sit by idly if our nuclear reactor's installations are attacked."
Israeli defense and intelligence officials have said Iran's nuclear weapons development program, coupled with its Shihab-3 missile, which is capable of striking Israel, represent the most significant threat to Israel.
In a simulated test last Friday off the Californian coast, Israel's Arrow anti-ballistic missile system, which is designed to destroy or intercept short- and medium-range missiles, failed to stop a Shihab-3 and a Syrian Scud D, according to Israeli defense officials.
Analysts also said that because of AIPAC's alleged involvement, the Franklin case, if proved, could have a more damaging impact on U.S.-Israeli relations than the case of Jonathan J. Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who admitted to spying for Israel in 1987. Analysts said the case could also have a major impact on AIPAC. The group has 65,000 members "at the forefront of the most vexing issues facing Israel today: stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, fighting terrorism and achieving peace," according to its Web site.
"The insinuation that AIPAC, an American Jewish lobby, is engaged in espionage is in some ways worse than Pollard, who as a single individual could be described as off-balance," said Alpher, the former Mossad official.
Equally damaging could be the perception that Israeli and American Jews are wielding disproportionate influence on U.S. foreign policy, said Oren, the historian.
"There's a convention going on in New York," he said, referring to the Republican National Convention, "and the canard has been out there for a long time that Israel and Israel's supporters and the neo-conservatives in the Defense Department have manipulated U.S. foreign policy, especially on Iraq, to serve Israeli purposes, and this would tend to substantiate that canard."