Khamenei dismisses sanctions, says Iran stronger than ever


Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday dismissed harsher sanctions imposed on Iran this month over its disputed nuclear activity, saying the country was “100 times stronger” than before.

A European Union embargo on Iranian crude oil took full effect on July 1 – a joint effort with the United States to force Tehran to curb nuclear energy work the Western powers say is a camouflaged bid to develop bombs, which Tehran denies.

Prices of goods have soared and the Iranian rial has plunged in value as broader, deeper sanctions have been introduced this year targeting Iran’s financial and energy sectors.

“The Iranian nation, through life, wealth and loved ones, has stood up to all plots and sanctions and has advanced to the extent that today we are 100 times stronger compared with 30 years ago,” Khamenei told a women’s conference in Tehran in a speech that was published on his official website.

“These days Westerners are being sensational about sanctions but they don’t understand that they themselves vaccinated Iran through their sanctions imposed over the last 30 years,” he said. Iran’s Islamic Revolution a little over three decades ago toppled the U.S.-backed shah.

Iranian officials regularly shrug off sanctions, saying they have little or no effect on the country. But a combination of increasing unemployment, substantial price rises and rampant inflation is creating tough new challenges for the government.

Industry sources say Iran’s oil exports have declined in the wake of the EU crude ban and extensive U.S. diplomatic efforts to get Iran’s main customers to cut their imports.

The United States imposed sanctions in 1979, soon after the Islamic Revolution that overthrew its monarchy. Successive U.S. administrations have added to the embargo, effectively creating a near total ban on any trade between it and Iran.

The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of international sanctions specifically targeting Iran’s nuclear activities. Tehran says its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful energy purposes only.

Six world powers and Iran have had several rounds of negotiations on how to defuse concerns over its nuclear ambitions this year but found no common ground for a deal.

Senior diplomats from the EU and Iran will meet on July 24 for technical talks to try to salvage diplomatic efforts to resolve the decade-long standoff.

Reporting by Marcus George; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran says test-fires missiles over threats of attack


Iran said on Tuesday it had successfully tested medium-range missiles capable of hitting Israel as a response to threats of attack, the latest move in a war of nerves with the West.

Israel says it could attack Iran if diplomacy fails to secure a halt to its disputed nuclear energy programme. The United States also has military force as a possible option but has repeatedly encouraged the Israelis to be patient while new economic sanctions are implemented against Iran.

The Islamic Republic announced the “Great Prophet 7” missile exercise on Sunday after a European embargo against Iranian crude oil purchases took full effect following another fruitless round of big power talks with Tehran.

Iran’s official English-language Press TV said the Shahab 3 missile with a range of 1,300 km (800 miles) – able to reach Israel – was tested along with the shorter-range Shahab 1 and 2.

“The main aim of this drill is to demonstrate the Iranian nation’s political resolve to defend vital values and national interests,” Revolutionary Guards Deputy Commander Hossein Salami was quoted by Press TV as saying.

He said the tests were in response to Iran’s enemies who talk of a “military option being on the table”.

On Sunday, Iran threatened to wipe Israel “off the face of the earth” if the Jewish state attacked it.

Analysts have challenged some of Iran’s military assertions, saying it often exaggerates its capabilities.

Senior researcher Pieter Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said Iran’s missiles were still relatively inaccurate and of limited use in conventional warfare. With conventional warheads, “their only utility is as a tool of terror and no more than that”, he said by telephone.

He added, however, that they could be suitable for carrying nuclear warheads, especially the larger ones.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a 2010 report that all Tehran’s ballistic missiles were “inherently capable of a nuclear payload”, if Iran was able to make a small enough bomb.

Iran denies Western accusations that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability. The world’s No. 5 oil exporter maintains that it is enriching uranium only to generate more energy for a rapidly growing population.

OIL MARKETS ON EDGE

Iran has previously threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which more than a third of the world’s seaborne oil trade passes, in response to increasingly harsh sanctions by the United States and its allies intended to force it to curb its nuclear research programme.

Fars said dozens of missiles involved in this week’s exercises had been aimed at simulated air bases, and that Iranian-built unmanned drones would be tested on Wednesday.

Iran repeated its claim to be reverse-engineering the sophisticated U.S. RQ-170 drone that it says it brought down during a spying mission last year.

“In this drone there are hundreds of technologies used, each of which are valuable to us in terms of operations, information and technicalities,” General Amir Hajizadeh was quoted by the ISNA news agency as saying.

Wezeman said Iran had a large standing armed force, but that its weapons were generally outdated. “And those weapons only get older and older and they don’t have access to new technology because they are under a United Nations arms embargo.”

In his first comments since the European Union oil ban took force, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said sanctions would benefit Iran by lessening its dependence on crude exports.

“We must see the sanctions as an opportunity … which can forever take out of the enemy’s hands the ability to use oil as a weapon for sanctions,” Fars news agency quoted him as saying.

Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme continued in Istanbul on Tuesday with a meeting of technical experts from Iran and six world powers.

The discussions follow a round of political talks in Moscow last month at which the sides failed to bridge differences or agree on a further round of talks at that level.

The experts have no mandate to strike agreements but the six powers – the United States, China, Britain, Germany, France and Russia – hope that by clarifying technical aspects of Tehran’s work they can open way for more negotiations in the future.

Diplomats in Istanbul said discussions in the Turkish capital were “detailed” and would most likely be followed by a meeting between a senior negotiator from the European Union and Iran’s deputy negotiator Ali Bagheri. Such a meeting could, at a later date, be a prelude to talks on a political level, diplomats have said.

“We hope Iran will seize the opportunity … to show a willingness to take concrete steps to urgently meet the concerns of the international community,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said ahead of the meeting. Ashton and her team represent the six powers in dealings with Iran.

As a priority, the powers want Iran to stop enriching uranium to levels close to weapons-grade, ship out any stockpile, and close a secret facility where such work is done.

Iran denies its programme has a military dimension and wants relief from economic sanctions before it makes any concessions.

IRANIAN CALL TO SHUT OIL LANES

On Monday, Iranian parliamentarians proposed a bill calling for Iran to try to stop tankers taking crude through the Strait of Hormuz to countries that support the sanctions.

However, the Iranian parliament is relatively weak, analysts say, and the proposal has no chance of becoming law unless sanctioned by Iran’s clerical supreme leader.

That is seen as unlikely in the near term given that Western powers have said they would tolerate no closure of the Strait while Iranian leaders, wedded to strategic pragmatism for the sake of survival, have said they seek no war with anyone.

“It’s a gesture at this stage,” said independent British-based Iran analyst Reza Esfandiari.

“They want to emphasise that Iran can make life difficult for Europe and America. I think this is more of an attempt to offset falling crude prices. Financial markets are very sensitive to such talk.”

On Tuesday, the price of Brent crude, which has been on a downward trend for the last three months, broke $100 for the first time since early June.

“A lot depends on nuclear talks,” said Esfandiari. “If there’s no progress and the initiative is deadlocked, then these kind of actions will intensify.”

Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Kevin Liffey and Michael Roddy

Israel says clock ticking after Iran talks fail


Israel has responded to the failure of the latest nuclear talks between world powers and Iran with a familiar refrain: sanctions must be ramped up while the clock ticks down toward possible military action.

With diplomacy at an impasse, there is satisfaction among Israeli leaders at what they see as a tough line taken by the West in the negotiations on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Israeli political sources said on Thursday.

A member of the British negotiating team quietly visited Israel on Wednesday to brief officials on this week’s Moscow talks, the sources said, and new U.S. and European sanctions against Iran are due to come into effect in the next two weeks.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak stuck closely to his stated line, without offering any new sense of urgency, when asked by the Washington Post how much more time Israel can allow for diplomacy to work.

“I don’t want to pretend to set timelines for the world,” he said, “but we have said loud and clear that it cannot be a matter of weeks but it (also) cannot be a matter of years”.

Preparations for any strike against Iran, which Israel and Western powers suspect is trying to develop the capacity to build a nuclear bomb, are closely guarded in Israel.

But Barak said that even in the United States, which has counseled against jumping the gun while a diplomatic drive with Iran is under way, “at least on a technical level, there are a lot of preparations”.

Iran and six world powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – failed to secure a breakthrough in Moscow at what was the third round of the latest diplomatic initiative, and set no date for more political talks.

DEMANDS

Last month, and again in Moscow, the powers asked Iran to close the Fordow underground facility where uranium is being enriched to 20-percent fissile purity, and to ship any stockpile out of the country, demands that come close to Israel’s.

Israeli Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Wednesday.

“I explained that after the failure of the … talks in Moscow, the West must impose a full oil embargo on Iran and tough financial sanctions,” Mofaz said on his Facebook page, adding: “In parallel, preparations for other options must continue.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not commented publicly on the Moscow talks. He had complained that the months of talking had given Iran a “freebie” to continue enrichment.

The right-wing leader has been cautioned by former Israeli security chiefs against ordering attacks on Iran, amid skepticism about how effective Israeli air strikes would be.

Iran, which has called for Israel’s demise, says its nuclear program is designed for energy production alone. Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, says a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to its existence.

Barak, in the newspaper interview, held out little hope that diplomacy would persuade Iran to bend.

“By the third meeting in a negotiation, you know whether the other party intends to reach an agreement or, alternatively, whether he is trying to play for time to avoid a decision,” he said.

“It seems to me that the Iranians keep defying and deceiving the whole world. But it’s up to the participants in the negotiations to reach this conclusion. We cannot afford to spend another three rounds of this nature just to allow the Iranians to keep maneuvering.”

Weighing into the debate, Israeli President Shimon Peres told an audience in Jerusalem: “There’s not much time. If the Iranians … don’t heed the warnings, the calls and the economic sanctions, the world will look to other options.”

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Kevin Liffey

U.S.: Israel ‘supportive’ on future Iran sanctions


The United States is conferring with Israel about new sanctions planned against Iran should international negotiations this month fail to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, a U.S. official said on Monday.

The comment offered a strong hint that Washington is continuing to apply the brakes on any plan by Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities preemptively.

Israel has signaled increasing impatience with the lack of progress towards circumscribing the nuclear program during the negotiations involving Iran, the United States and five other world powers. The third round of talks will be hosted by Russia on June 18-19.

“If we don’t get a breakthrough in Moscow there is no question we will continue to ratchet up the pressure,” David Cohen, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, told Haaretz newspaper during a visit to Israel.

The United States and European Union have already made clear they will stiffen sanctions should Iran pursue uranium enrichment, a process that can yield fuel for warheads though it insists the objective is civilian energy and medical isotopes.

An Israeli official who met Cohen told Reuters that the message on sanctions was welcomed.

“These are things we have heard before, but when you hear it from the top guy on sanctions, it’s encouraging,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Cohen stressed in the interview with Haaretz the depth of the U.S.-Israeli partnership.

“We have today and over the past years had very close cooperation with the Israeli government across a range of our sanctions programs,” he said. “They are creative. They are supportive and we will continue to consult with the Israelis.”

Echoing those remarks, the Israeli official described the discussions as “daily ping-pong”.

Cohen made similar comments to Army Radio, a major Israeli broadcaster, during his 36-hour visit, when he was to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s senior security staff.

In a speech last week, Netanyahu said world powers must both beef up sanctions and demand an immediate end to all uranium enrichment by Iran, whose mid-level 20 percent purification has been the focus of earlier negotiations.

Israel is reputed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal and many international experts, including the top U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey, have voiced doubt in the ability of its conventional forces to deliver lasting damage to Iran’s distant, dispersed and well-defended nuclear facilities.

The Israelis have hinted that delaying Iran’s progress could justify a unilateral strike. Ensuing Iranian reprisals would risk drawing in the United States, which has not ruled out force against Tehran but is loath to launch a new military campaign in the Muslim world.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Michael Roddy

Satellite images show crews hiding evidence at Iran nuclear site


New satellite images show possible recent nuclear activity at the Parchin facility in Iran as well as attempts to hide evidence of past activity.

A May 25 image of the facility east of Tehran revealed “ground-scraping activity” and the presence of bulldozers, according to diplomats quoted by international news services who attended a closed-door briefing by United Nations nuclear agency officials on Wednesday.

On Thursday, the Institute for Science and International Security posted a similar image on its website. Its image showed that two buildings that previously had been located on the site were razed, according to reports.

Last March, according to the International Atomic Energy Association, the nuclear watchdog of the U.N., satellite images showed crews and vehicles cleaning up radioactive evidence of a test nuclear explosion.

The United States, China, France, Russia, Germany and Great Britain jointly called on Iran to grant inspectors access to the site. An IAEA report last year said that construction developments at Parchin are “strong indicators of possible weapon development.” Iran has dismissed the charges against Parchin as “childish” and “ridiculous,” Reuters reported.

This most recent image is believed to be further evidence that Iran is “sanitizing” the site of any incriminating evidence before possibly allowing IAEA inspectors into the complex.

At Wednesday’s briefing, IAEA deputy director Gen. Herman Nackaerts presented the satellite images indicating that at least two small buildings had been removed.

Nackaerts did not elaborate on what he believed was happening at the site, apart from reiterating that the agency needed to go there to clarify the issue, diplomats told reporters.

Israel wary of expected Iran nuclear deal


Israel expressed deep suspicion on Tuesday about an expected deal between the U.N. nuclear agency and Iran, suggesting Tehran’s aim was to wriggle out of sanctions rather than make real concessions ahead of wider atomic talks with world powers.

“Iran has proven over the years its lack of credibility, its dishonesty. Telling the truth is not its strong side and therefore we have to be suspicious of them all the time and examine the agreement that is being formulated,” Civil Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said on Israel Radio.

He and other cabinet members spoke after the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he expected to sign an agreement with Tehran soon to unblock an IAEA investigation into suspicions Iran has worked on designing nuclear arms.

Iran meets six world powers in Baghdad on Wednesday to discuss what the West and Israel suspect is its drive to develop the means to make atom bombs.

Tehran has returned to talks, after a hiatus of more than a year, under tighter western sanctions and constant Israeli and U.S. threats of military strikes on Iran, which says its often secretive projects are for purely peaceful ends.

“It appears that the Iranians are trying to reach a ‘technical agreement’ which will create the impression of progress in the talks, in order to remove some of the pressure before the talks tomorrow in Baghdad (and) put off the intensification of sanctions,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement.

Asked whether war on Iran was still a possibility given apparent progress on the diplomatic track, Vilnai said: “One shouldn’t get confused for even a moment – everything is on the table.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that “the leading nations of the world must show force and clarity, and not weakness” in their dealings with Iran.

Netanyahu has demanded that Iran stop all uranium enrichment, remove enriched material and dismantle its underground, bunkered nuclear facility near the city of Qom.

Widely assumed to be the only Middle Eastern country with a nuclear arsenal, Israel is determined to stop hostile neighbors acquiring weapons that it fears could be used to wipe out the Jewish state.

Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official, predicted that Iran would take a conciliatory tack at the Baghdad talks while not abandoning its goal of becoming a nuclear power.

“They will be willing to show what appears to be flexibility as long as it doesn’t affect their strategic direction, meaning that they will be able to develop nuclear weapons if that decision is made,” Gilad told Army Radio.

“Today they have enough uranium, raw material, for the bomb, they have the missiles that can carry them and they have the knowledge to assemble a warhead on a missile,” he said.

“They have not yet decided to do this because they are worried about the response.”

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Iran nuclear concession would test big power unity


Facing an imminent toughening of sanctions, Iran is hinting at a readiness to give some ground in its long nuclear stand-off with world powers, but any flexibility could split their ranks and lead to protracted uncertainty about how to respond.

The stakes are high, for the longer the impasse goes on, the closer Iran will get to the technological threshold of capability to develop atomic bombs, raising the odds of last-ditch Israeli military strikes on its arch-foe and the risk of a new Middle East war a troubled global economy cannot afford.

A succession of optimistic statements by Iranian officials and academics has raised speculation that Tehran may offer concessions to its six main negotiating partners in talks scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad, a move that could ease regional tensions and soothe fears of a fresh spike in oil prices.

Such an offer would also be closely studied by Israel, which has threatened to use force to destroy nuclear installations the Islamic Republic says are purely civilian in nature but the West suspects are geared to gaining a weapons capability.

Any talk of a diplomatic breakthrough, though, is almost certainly premature.

Whatever concrete gestures are tabled by Iran would test anew the cohesiveness of joint Western, Russian and Chinese efforts to prevent an Iranian atom bomb capability, and might simply lead to months of inconclusive consultations among its interlocutors about how to answer Tehran’s move, analysts say.

Differences in how best to match an Iranian offer – for example by suspending some sanctions in return for Iran shelving enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, a level that worries U.N. nuclear experts – could snag efforts to turn any such initiative into meaningful movement towards negotiations.

“Don’t expect a ‘Kumbaya’ (celebratory) moment. It’s going to be a poker play” between Iran and the major powers, French analyst Bruno Tertrais said. “I would be surprised if what happens in Baghdad was more than an agreement on interim steps.”

ISOLATION

There is “no doubt ” that Iran’s policy would be to split the six, known as the P5+1, says Dennis Ross, until November a chief Middle East strategy adviser at the White House.

“I also have no doubt that they probably will put something on the table that they think will be attractive to some of the members of the P5+1,” Ross told an audience at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

He said one such move could be Iranian assurances on a halt to stockpiling of 20 percent enriched uranium.

That level, well beyond the 5 percent of fissile purity suitable for running civilian nuclear power plants, is intended only to replenish the fuel stocks of a medical isotope reactor, Iran says. But it also moves Iran farther down the road towards the highly enriched grade of uranium usable in bombs.

One Western government assessment is that it would take Iran two to three years to manufacture a usable nuclear weapon in the event that authorities in Tehran decided to attempt that task.

Analysts and some diplomats have said Iran and the global powers must compromise for any chance of a long-term settlement, suggesting Tehran could be allowed to continue limited low-level enrichment if it accepts more intrusive U.N. inspections.

But Iran has often managed to limit its diplomatic and economic isolation by sowing rifts among the six states spearheading international efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, leading to a watering-down of U.N. sanctions.

Western analysts are on alert for any new such gambit now.

A united front among Russia, China, the United States, France, Germany and Britain is the most powerful leverage the outside world has in ensuring Iranian compliance with international safeguards intended to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Western analysts say.

And yet that unity has always been fragile.

Russia and China, which both have strong trade ties to Iran, have supported four rounds of U.N. sanctions imposed since 2006 on Iran over its refusal to suspend enrichment-related activity and grant unfettered U.N. inspections to resolve suspicions of military dimensions to its nuclear program.

But Moscow and Beijing criticized the United States and the European Union last year for meting out extra unilateral sanctions against Iran. Russia has made clear its opposition to any further U.N. Security Council measures against Tehran.

“I think P5+1 will have significant problems whenever it comes to Iran actually moving and how they respond,” a European diplomat told Reuters. “At this moment in time it is easy and nothing has been promised by Iran … but I think it will become very difficult and very tense on the P5+1 side once they have to start reacting to an Iranian step.”

“EARLY TEST OF UNITY”

Mark Fitzpatrick of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies said an Iranian demand for an easing of sanctions in return for its concessions “will present an early test of P5+1 unity. For the West, any lifting of sanctions would require significant limitations on the enrichment program.”

There is little debate about what may be encouraging Iran to indicate new flexibility: Iran, analysts say, wishes to stave off the planned July 1 start to a European Union ban on imports of Iranian oil, a significant measure since the EU takes a fifth of the country’s petroleum shipments.

But there is plenty of speculation about the extent to which Russia and China are prepared to reward any Iranian shift.

Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute said divergence between Russia and China and its other partners would likely emerge on the price the world should demand for dropping the insistence, enshrined in the Security Council resolutions, that Iran cease any enrichment whatsoever.

He said the United States would want to see the dismantling of an enrichment plant buried deep under a mountain at Fordow south of Tehran, the Iranian nuclear site best sheltered from any possible air strike.

“The Russians and Chinese may recognize that this is unlikely, and may accept Iranian offers short of this,” he said.

“So we should expect to see Iran attempt to split the Russians and Chinese from the others by offering something concrete and significant, but short of dismantlement.”

Tehran has ruled out closing the bunkered Fordow site.

SIGNS OF NEW IRANIAN APPROACH

Diplomats and analysts say an agreement is still far off, but the signs are growing that Iran’s leaders are changing their approach and preparing public opinion for a potential shift.

Tehran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, now a visiting scholar at Princeton University in the United States, said last month Iran and major nations had a “historic opportunity” to settle their decade-old nuclear dispute.

On May 2, Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadehhe said in a speech in Vienna: “We continue to be optimistic about upcoming negotiations.”

In April, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran was “ready to resolve all issues very quickly and simply”.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran cleaning building of nuclear traces, U.S. institute alleges


New satellite imagery analyzed by a U.S. security think tank shows that Iran may be clearing nuclear evidence from a building at a military site.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security believes the Iranians are cleaning the inside of the the Parchin military complex near Tehran based on images taken last month by a commercial satellite imagery company. The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency has asked to visit the facility because it suspects that research on a nuclear weapon may have taken place there.

The building is believed to contain an explosive chamber used to carry out nuclear weapons-related experiments.

Satellite images taken in recent months did not show similar activity at the building, according to the institute.

The IAEA said in a report last year that it believed Iran had built a containment chamber at Parchin in which to conduct high-explosives tests, according to Reuters. It will ask Iran again next week during talks in Iran to allow inspectors to visit Parchin.

Biden: Israel still has time to strike Iran [VIDEO]


Israel still has time to strike Iran and the right to decide for itself whether to do so, Vice President Joe Biden said.

Biden, appearing Tuesday in Atlanta at the annual convention of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said “the window has not closed in terms of the Israelis if they choose to act on their own militarily.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has suggested that Israel has until the fall to strike; the Obama administration has been pressing Israel to give time for sanctions and diplomacy to work.

Story continues after the jump.

Biden made the case that Obama’s strategies have worked, but said the decision to strike must be Israel’s.

“I would not contract out my security to anybody, even a loyal, loyal, loyal friend like the United States,” he said.

Biden also said that Israel’s perception of Iran as an existential threat was “justifiable.” He warned Iran that its window was closing for a diplomatic way out of its isolation because of its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The vice president also called efforts to delegitimize Israel “the most significant assault” on Israel since its independence.

Barak: Iran could seek short build time for bomb


Iran’s nuclear strategy could eventually allow it to build an atomic bomb with just 60 days’ notice, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Friday.

His remarks elaborate on long-held Israeli concerns that Iran is playing for time even as it engages world powers in negotiations aimed at curbing its uranium enrichment drive. Talks are due to resume in Baghdad on May 23.

“They are currently trying to achieve immunity for the nuclear program,” Barak told the Israel Hayom newspaper.

“If they arrive at military nuclear capability, at a weapon, or a demonstrated capability, or a threshold status in which they could manufacture a bomb within 60 days – they will achieve a different kind of immunity, regime immunity.”

Iran insists that its often secretive uranium enrichment is for peaceful energy and medical needs. At higher levels of purification, such projects can yield fuel for warheads, but Israel and the United States agree Iran has not taken that step.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last year issued a report detailing alleged Iranian research and development activities that were relevant to nuclear weapons, lending independent weight to Western suspicions.

Barak has said Iran is holding off until it can dig in behind defenses sufficient to withstand threatened Israeli or U.S. air strikes on its nuclear facilities.

His 60-day timeline for potential Iranian warhead production appeared aimed at skeptics both at home and abroad of Israel’s alarm who say it is too early to rattle sabers.

Israeli leaders believe the diplomatic drive, which involves the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, has a low chance of success, and suggest that Iran’s rulers seek an atomic bomb as insurance against outside intervention.

Some prominent Israelis have questioned the strategic value of a pre-emptive strike, with former spy chief Yuval Diskin last week accusing the government of promulgating the “false impression” it had the means of halting Iran.

“This is not so. We have been talking all the time about a delay,” said Barak, indicating that Israel could not eradicate Iran’s nuclear program, but saw value in forestalling it.

Israel is reputed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal, but many experts – including U.S. military chief, General Martin Dempsey – have voiced doubt that its conventional forces would be able to deliver lasting damage to Iran’s distant, dispersed and fortified facilities.

The idea that some countries with civilian atomic projects might then use them for military purposes is commonplace, letting states keep their options open while not necessarily violating their non-proliferation commitments.

A leaked diplomatic cable from 2008 quoted senior U.S. State Department official John Rood saying Japan was “not a nuclear threshold country…but rather is ‘over the threshold’ and could develop nuclear weapons quickly if it wanted to” should it feel the need to vie with its nuclear-armed Asian neighbors.

Barak, who leads the sole centrist party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government, has in the past sounded sanguine about Israel’s ability to deter a nuclear-armed Iran from attacking.

But with an Israeli election expected in September, and given Iran’s nuclear advances as well as Western war jitters, Barak has publicly closed ranks with the hawkish Netanyahu.

In Friday’s interview with the pro-government daily, Barak said Iran might regard trying to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons as worth the risk of catastrophic retaliation.

Under such thinking, he said, “after the exchange of strikes, Islam would remain and Israel would no longer be what it was”.

Editing by Crispian Balmer and Angus MacSwan

Israel’s top general says Iran unlikely to make bomb


Israel’s military chief said he does not believe Iran will decide to build an atomic bomb and called its leaders “very rational” — comments that clashed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assessment.

Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz’s remarks, in an interview published on Wednesday in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, drew little attention in Israel on its annual remembrance day for fallen soldiers, when political discourse is suspended.

But they will add fuel to an internal debate on the prospects of Iran weaponizing its uranium enrichment program and the wisdom and risks of any Israeli military strike to try to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear power.

“Iran is moving step-by-step towards a point where it will be able to decide if it wants to make a nuclear bomb. It has not decided yet whether to go the extra mile,” Gantz said.

But, he said, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could opt to produce nuclear weapons should be believe that Iran would not face reprisal.

“In my opinion, he will be making a huge mistake if he does that and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile,” Gantz said.

“I think the Iranian leadership is comprised of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, who at some moments may make different calculations, is a dangerous thing.”

Israel, believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, has not ruled out military action against Iran should economic sanctions fail to curb its nuclear program, saying all options were on the table.

Only last week, in a speech during Israel’s Holocaust remembrance day, Netanyahu said: “Today, the regime in Iran openly calls and determinedly works for our destruction. And it is feverishly working to develop atomic weapons to achieve that goal.”

Tehran denies seeking the bomb, saying it is enriching uranium only for peaceful energy purposes and that its nuclear program is a threat to no one.

Speaking on CNN on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he would not want to bet “the security of the world on Iran’s rational behaviour”. A “militant Islamic regime”, he said, “can put their ideology before their survival”.

The portrayal of Iran as irrational – willing to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon even if it means the destruction of the Islamic Republic in retaliatory strikes – could bolster a case for pre-emptive bombing to take out its atomic facilities.

Netanyahu had already been stung at home by his former spymaster, Meir Dagan, who said that such an Israeli strike on Iran would be a “ridiculous” idea.

Shannon Kile, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said Gantz’s description of Iranian leaders as rational was “quite an interesting turnabout”.

“Hopefully, it is going to reduce the incentives for any sort of pre-emptive or preventive military action, at least for the time being,” Kile said.

The United States has also not ruled out military action as a last resort. But many allies of Washington, and even some senior U.S. officials, fear such an attack could ignite a broader war and only temporarily halt Iran’s nuclear advances.

Gantz’s assessment appeared to be in step with the view of the top U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey. He said in a CNN interview in February he believed Iran was a “rational actor” and it would be premature to take military action against it.

Israeli political sources said at the time that the remarks by Dempsey – who also suggested Israel’s armed forces could not deliver lasting damage to Iranian nuclear sites – had angered Netanyahu.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak raised international concern about a possible Israeli strike several months ago when he spoke about time running out for effective Israeli military action against Iranian nuclear sites buried deep underground.

And Netanyahu, while noting that Iran has made no apparent decision to begin constructing a bomb, has voiced impatience with the pace of nuclear talks that began this month between Tehran and six world powers, the first such negotiations in more than a year.

“Either Iran takes its nuclear program to a civilian footing only, or the world, perhaps us too, will have to do something. We’re closer to the end of the discussions than the middle,” Gantz said.

However, he also said international pressure on Iran “is beginning to bear fruit, both on the diplomatic level and on the economic sanctions level”.

Netanyahu said on CNN the sanctions were “certainly taking a bite out of the Iranian economy but so far they haven’t rolled back the Iranian program or even stopped it by one iota.

“Unfortunately, that’s not achieved by talks in which Iran has one goal, to stall, delay, run out the clock; that’s basically what they’re doing.”

Gantz, a lanky former paratrooper who has served as Israel’s military attache in Washington, was asked in the Haaretz interview what impact his view would have on government decision-making on Iran.

“Whatever weight the government decides to ascribe it,” he said.

“I say my opinion according to my own professional truth and my strategic analysis. I will say it sharply: I do not forget my professional ethics. The government will decide after it hears the professional echelon and the army will carry out, in a faithful and determined manner, any decision that is made.”

Kile said he was surprised Gantz had spoken out, “because normally the Israeli military leadership on the nuclear issue has been quite subdued”, with former intelligence officials “coming out and trying to cool … the possible Israeli impetus towards military action”.

Gantz took over as chief of staff a year ago but has been less outspoken on strategic issues than his predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi. He was not the first choice for the job; the preferred candidate, Yoav Gallant, had to bow out because of a property scandal.

In at least one turning point in Israeli history, the government chose to ignore a strong warning from the military’s top general about the intentions of a long-time adversary.

In 1977, then-chief of staff Mordechai Gur famously cautioned the cabinet that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s offer to visit Jerusalem could be a smokescreen for war preparations. Sadat’s trip led to a peace treaty in 1979.

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran, world powers set for high-stakes nuclear talks


Iran and the six world powers prepared on Friday for rare talks aimed at easing fears that a deepening dispute over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program could plunge the Middle East into a new war.

Officials from Iran and the six major powers arrived in Istanbul ahead of Saturday’s bid to restart stalled diplomacy following months of soaring tension and persistent speculation that Israel might attack Iranian nuclear sites.

The meeting is widely seen as a chance for the powers – the United States, France, Russia, China, Britain and Germany – and Iran to halt a downward diplomatic spiral and start to seek ways out of years of deadlock.

Western diplomats have expressed cautious optimism that Iran, which has seen its lifeblood oil exports squeezed by increasingly tough sanctions, may finally be ready to discuss curbs to its nuclear program to ease the pressure.

But Iran’s English-language state television, Press TV, cited sources close to Iran’s delegation as saying Tehran saw “few encouraging points” in the remarks of U.S. and European officials. It did not elaborate.

The West accuses Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability and Israel has hinted at pre-emptive military strikes to prevent its arch foe from obtaining such arms.

Iran, which has promised to put forward “new initiatives” in Istanbul, says its nuclear program is peaceful and has repeatedly ruled out suspending it.

Diplomats and analysts played down any expectations of a major breakthrough in the meeting, but said it may pave the ground for further negotiations to resolve the decade-long row.

Western officials have made clear their immediate priority is to convince Tehran to cease the higher-grade uranium enrichment it began in 2010. It has since expanded that work, shortening the time it would need for any weapons “break out”.

Iran has signalled some flexibility over halting its enrichment to a fissile purity of 20 percent – compared with the 5 percent level required for nuclear power plants – but also suggests it is not ready to do so yet.

The talks “will begin a very complex negotiation, and for several months diplomacy will take some pressure off oil prices and help keep the chance of Israeli strikes very low,” said Cliff Kupchan, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group.

But in the end, Kupchan said renewed diplomacy was unlikely to yield a resolution to the crisis, which has helped push global oil prices higher this year.

If Iran were to accept scaling back its uranium enrichment program, it would probably expect to be rewarded with an easing of sanctions, for example a European Union oil embargo due to take effect in less than three months time.

But one Western official appeared to dismiss this: “That decision is taken. We would expect the oil embargo to come into force on July 1 and it would be a surprise if Iran did something that merited moving on that.”

Iran’s deputy chief negotiator Ali Baqeri held talks with a senior Chinese official in Istanbul and was also due to meet a Russian delegate.

The formal negotiations with the six powers and their chief representative, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, will get underway on Saturday, but Ashton and Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili are expected to meet over dinner on Friday evening.

The last time the two sides met, also in Istanbul in January last year, they could not even agree an agenda.

Both sides signalled in the run-up to Saturday’s discussions their intent to give diplomacy a real chance.

“We hope that this first round will produce a conducive environment for concrete results through a sustained process,”

Ashton’s spokesman Michael Mann said in an email.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in a rare opinion piece in a U.S. newspaper, said his country hoped that all sides would commit to comprehensive dialogue and that negotiators make “genuine efforts to reestablish confidence and trust”.

Defying intensifying sanctions, Iran has continued to expand its uranium enrichment program – activity which can have both civilian and military purposes – and experts say it now has enough material for four atomic bombs if processed much further.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank, said getting Iran to halt 20 percent enrichment would be an interim goal “to put a lid on the most troublesome” aspect of Iran’s nuclear program.

A long-term deal will have to “provide confidence that Iran cannot quickly produce nuclear weapons,” he told Reuters, adding this would require both better monitoring of Iran’s nuclear work and limits on its uranium enrichment and stockpiles.

Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian, Jonathon Burch, Alexandra Hudson, Ayla Jean Yackley and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Jon Hemming

Divided by common foe, Israel and U.S. tangle over Iran


Ever since their first awkward encounter – a hastily arranged meeting in a custodian’s office at a Washington airport in 2007 – Iran has been one of the few issues on which Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been able to find some common ground.

Nearly five years ago, neither man was yet in power but both hoped to be, and though they were very different politicians they grabbed the opportunity to size each other up when their paths crossed.

The Israeli right-winger came across, at first, as strident in his views, while the newly declared Democratic presidential candidate seemed wary. But when Netanyahu insisted on the urgent need to do more to isolate Iran economically and Obama said “tell me more,” the mood suddenly brightened, according to one account of the meeting.

It was part of what Netanyahu, who first served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, has described as a 15-year personal effort to “broaden as much as possible the international front against Iran,” a foe that has called for Israel’s destruction.

Obama, then a first-term senator, would go on to introduce an Iran divestment bill in Congress on the way to winning the White House in the 2008 election.

Now, with Obama and Netanyahu due to meet in Washington on March 5, the Iranian nuclear standoff will again top the agenda. But this time, a trust deficit between the two leaders could make it harder to decide what action to take against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program.

The Obama administration, increasingly concerned about the lack of any assurance from Israel that it would consult Washington before launching strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites, has scrambled in recent weeks to convince Israeli leaders to give sanctions and diplomacy more time to work, U.S. officials say.

Israel has been listening – but after a series of high-level U.S. visits there is no sign it has been swayed.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who along with Netanyahu met U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon last week, complained privately afterward that Washington is lobbying for a delay in any Israeli attack on Iran while time is running out for such a strike to be effective, Israeli political sources said.

Barak has spoken publicly of an Iranian “zone of immunity” to aerial attack, a reference to the start of additional uranium enrichment at a remote site believed to be buried beneath 80 meters (265 feet) of rock and soil near the city of Qom.

Donilon’s visit to Israel coincided with a cautionary note from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, who told CNN it would be “premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us.”

The United States, Dempsey said, has counseled Israel “that it’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran.” He said sanctions were beginning to have an effect and it is still unclear whether Tehran would choose to make a nuclear weapon.

Obama and top aides have said they do not believe Israel has made a decision to attack Iran even as they caution about devastating consequences in the Middle East – and potentially around the globe – if it does so.

U.S. intelligence sources say they would expect little or no advance notice from Israel, except possibly as a courtesy call when any bombing mission is at the point of no return. But one line of thinking within the Obama administration is that this might be best for the United States since any sign of complicity would inflame the Muslim world.

“When it comes to something that the Israeli government considers essential to Israel’s security, they will take whatever action they deem necessary, even if there is a level of disagreement with other countries, including the United States,” said Michael Herzog, a former chief of staff to Barak and now an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.