U.S. suckers on the loose


When I see the earnest and eager John Kerry globe-trotting the world in his sharp business suits trying to convince mullahs not to build a nuclear bomb, I can’t help but have these politically incorrect thoughts that are loaded with stereotypes.

The most obvious stereotype is that of the golly-gee American sucker in long shorts and black socks getting ripped off by a wily merchant in a Middle Eastern souk.

The first question I ask myself is: Does Kerry realize what this is about? Does he realize that in a region where honor and glory are everything, a nuclear bomb represents precisely that, honor and glory? He’s hoping the Iranians will abandon the very program that would help them fulfill their dream of bringing back the powerful and glorious Shiite Persian Empire that would eradicate Zionism and dominate Arabs, Turks and Sunnis across the greater Middle East for the next century.

When you ask for that much, you’d better have plenty of leverage.

Right now, Kerry’s leverage is pain — economic pain. It is this pain that has brought the mullahs back to the table, not some epiphany that maybe a better way to regain their Persian glory would be to find the cure for cancer.

If Kerry better understood this leverage, he wouldn’t be offering deals that are so lame that, in the words of Middle Eastern expert Lee Smith, the United States  would give the Iranians “virtually everything they wanted for nothing but empty promises.”

In other words, deals where Iran would get sanctions relief but still be allowed, according to The New York Times, to “continue adding to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.” 

The mark of a sucker is to act like an eager buyer — and Kerry looks like one very eager buyer.

He’s so eager, in fact, that he’s fighting against his own side – U.S. congressmen and senators — to convince them not to increase the sanctions so that he can decrease the sanctions. Apparently, it hasn’t dawned on him that there’s a third option: Using new sanctions as a negotiating tool and telling the mullahs, “In return for us not increasing the sanctions, what are you prepared to offer?”

As Jeffrey Goldberg writes on Bloomberg.com, “The Iranians have a history of expanding their nuclear program under the cover of negotiations; the least Western diplomats could do to avoid looking like suckers is to demand that Iran press the [nuclear] pause button.”

A shrewder Kerry, then, might propose this deal: We stop increasing sanctions if you stop enriching uranium. 

But even more important than the issue of U.S. shrewdness in deal-making is the issue of U.S. seriousness.

It’s well known that if you’re really serious about getting Iran to abandon its nuclear dream, you must back sanctions with a credible military threat. How credible is the U.S. threat? In a piece in Politico titled “Obama’s Fight With Israel: This Time It’s Serious,” Robert Satloff writes that President Barack Obama’s military threat is “tarnished” and that he needs to take “urgent steps … to make the threat more believable.”

The real question is: Does Obama want to make this threat more believable?

Skeptics (myself included) will tell you that President Obama was never serious about a military option. As we saw with his flip-flopping on Syria and his infamous “leading from behind” doctrine, Obama has shown neither the stomach nor the inclination to start another Mideast war. That’s why he’s dialed down the threats — he’s hoping his man in Geneva can strike a deal so that Iran won’t call his bluff.

And, now that he’s embroiled in the Obamacare fiasco — which has severely undermined his credibility and threatened to taint his legacy — Obama has even less reason to start a war and even more reason to strike a deal, even a lame one.

The wily mullahs of Persia seem to grasp all this. They may hate sanctions, but they understand leverage.

Israelis who are rightly worried about another Holocaust understand that without a credible military threat, the Iranians will just continue to buy time until it’s too late to stop their nuclear program, which could be only months away.

As French President François Hollande urgently reminded everyone when he was greeted like a hero in Israel, “The Iranian nuclear program is a threat to Israel, and it is clearly a threat to the region and the world,” and, he added, France will be uncompromising until it is “completely sure that Iran has given up nuclear weapons.”

In that same spirit, another world leader once said: “The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. … The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”

Those words were spoken in 2008 by candidate Barack Obama, the same man who would promise his nation five years later that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.”

If President Obama is now wobbling on his promise to eliminate the Iranian threat, that might explain why Kerry is looking like a sucker in the souks of the Middle East: It’s not so much that he’s naïve but that his boss has lost the stomach for the fight.

Israel doesn’t have that luxury.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

David Suissa: On bombing Iran


“The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. … The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”

Those powerful and unambiguous words were spoken by presidential candidate Barack Obama at the 2008 AIPAC convention. 

Since then, the danger from Iran has only gotten more “grave” as the regime has moved significantly closer to its nuclear dream.

How urgent is the threat? As Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, recently wrote in the Atlantic: “That Iran’s nuclear challenge poses the most urgent threat to peace and security today is widely agreed across the national security community.”

Allison quotes former Mossad head Efraim Halevy saying that “Israel has long believed that mid-2013 would be an hour of decision in its dealings with Iran,” while Henry Kissinger warned that “we are in the last year where you can say a negotiation can conceivably succeed. … If nothing happens, the president will have to make some really tough decisions.”

We’ve seen how Iran has been resolute in its mission to become a nuclear power. But what about President Obama’s mission to “eliminate this threat”?

The president has done an admirable job of rallying the global community to enforce tough economic sanctions on Iran. The problem is that these sanctions haven’t convinced the Iranian regime to stop or end its nuclear program.

I’m no expert on centrifuges and uranium enrichment, but I do know something about human nature. When a bad guy shows you his evil intentions, it’s best to assume the worst, especially when the stakes are so high.

But instead of assuming the worst, we’ve been hoping for the best.

In particular, we’ve hoped that the sanctions we’ve imposed on Iran are tough enough to induce its leaders to abandon their dream of ruling the region and bringing Islamic glory back to Persia. That’s a big hope.

The latest instance of wishful thinking is that Iran’s new, more “moderate” president, Hassan Rohani, will decide that the bomb is really not worth all the tsuris and, voila, no more nuclear threat!

White House spokesman Jay Carney put it a little more diplomatically:

“The inauguration of President Rohani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States.”

Yes, and should Hamas choose to reform its anti-Semitic charter and seek Israeli investment to build a Riviera on the Gaza coast, it will find many willing partners.

Remember, Rohani is the same sneaky guy who “struck a conciliatory posture as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator under another reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, while presiding over the secret advance of the nuclear program,” as international jurist Irwin Cotler wrote recently.

Cotler even quotes Rohani boasting about it: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan [a crucial nuclear site]. In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”

Well, it looks like the shmoozing mullah is at it again, charming the West with wily words of reason while buying Iran more time to “complete the work.”

If the Obama administration was looking for an excuse to kick the can down the road and avoid making tough decisions, it certainly found it in Rohani.

So, this is where things stand: Even as Secretary of State John Kerry invests enormous energy trying to create a Palestinian state that he hopes won’t become another terror regime, a real terror regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction is continuing its headlong push for a nuclear bomb.

Is there anything the United States can do to get Iran’s attention, short of bombing its nuclear facilities?

I heard a good answer the other day from a prominent Jewish leader.

During a recent visit to the Jewish Journal offices, American Jewish Committee head David Harris explained that in this game of high-stakes poker, the crucial thing is to show Iran that you’re not bluffing — that you’re deadly serious about preventing a nuclear weapon. 

His idea? Explode a bunker-buster bomb — the kind of weapon the United States would use to take out the nuclear facilities — as a military “exercise,” and make sure everyone knows about it.

Could the move backfire and rally the Iranian people and the Shiite world behind the Persian regime? Sure, there are always risks, and the Iranian crisis has always been about picking the best of bad options.  

But here’s the essential point: An Iranian nuclear bomb is a deadly threat to Israel and the world. You can make all the tough speeches you want, and impose all the tough sanctions, but in the end, until the bad guy sees that you really mean business, he won’t take you seriously.

I think they call that human nature.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

As Iran achieves nuclear weapons capability, a red line is passed


The debate about red lines on Iran appears to be over.

With its massive increase of operative centrifuges at a secured uranium enrichment site, Iran appears to have moved beyond the question of whether capability to build a nuclear weapon or actual acquisition of a nuclear weapon is the appropriate red line.

Iran already has achieved nuclear weapons capability, according to Michael Adler, an Iran expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Adler studied the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran, which was leaked last week. It said that Iran soon could double the number of operating centrifuges at its underground Fordo nuclear site from 700 to 1,400. In all, the site has nearly 2,800 centrifuges in place, according to the report.

Fordo, near the holy city of Qom, is built into a mountainside. Israeli and Western officials say the site has been fortified against attack.

“As always with Iran, as time goes on they increase the facts on the ground,” Adler said. “Let's see what they do with the facts on the ground. What they do with their capability will determine whether they intend to be more threatening or reassuring.

“They’ve built up capacity — let's see whether they use it or not,” Adler said.

The notion of  what constitutes capability to produce a nuclear weapon long has been controversial. Groups that oppose military engagement with Iran charge that the term itself is unclear and the aim of those promoting it as a red line was to encourage a military strike. Others argued that with evidence of uranium enriched to “medium” levels — just a step or two short of weapons grade — Iran already had capability.

A Gallup poll published Monday found that Americans cited keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon as among the top three priorities of President Obama's second term, with 79 percent of respondents ranking the issue as “extremely” or “very” important.

For years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had led calls to set nuclear capability as the red line. Both parties in Congress backed that language, inserting it into a number of laws. The Obama administration resisted, instead seeking through diplomatic and economic pressures to persuade Iran to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Netanyahu appeared to back down in September following months of pressure from Obama administration officials seeking to head off an Israeli strike on Iran. In a U.N. speech, Netanyahu set the Israeli red line at the point where Iran has made the decision to manufacture a bomb – essentially the position Obama had staked out.

In that speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu said that point might come as soon as spring, and Obama appears to agree. Last week, Obama said the window for diplomacy is several months.

“I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran, and not just us but the international community, to see if we can get this thing resolved,” the U.S. leader said. “I can't promise that Iran will walk through the door that they need to walk through, but that would be very much the preferable option.”

Western diplomats have told JTA that such a dynamic likely would culminate in one-on-one talks between the United States and Iran. The New York Times last week reported that the Obama administration was seeking such talks, though the White House denied it.

Heather Hurlburt, a speechwriter during the Clinton administration who now directs the National Security Network, a liberal/realist foreign policy think tank, noted that administration officials did not reject outright the prospect of one-on-one talks.

“There’s this interesting dance about one-on-one talks,” she said. “It's clear both sides are looking forward to having one on one.”

Obama, after his decisive election victory this month, has the mandate for such talks, Hurlburt said, partly because his challenger, Mitt Romney, toward the end of the campaign aligned his Iran policy with Obama’s, emphasizing diplomacy as the best way forward.

“There are a number of areas where Romney adopted the president’s foreign policy, and Iran was one,” she said, adding that polling shows the public prefers a diplomatic option.

Polling also shows that the public sees Iran as a priority, which could spur forward Obama administration urgency toward securing a deal.

Stephen Rademaker, a nuclear arms negotiator for the George W. Bush administration, said Obama deserves breathing space to explore such a deal – but that negotiations should be subject to close scrutiny.

“I would never fault the U.S. government for exploring whether Iran is prepared to reach a diplomatic settlement to suspend the enrichment program. Now is a good a time as any to test them on that,” said Rademaker, now a principal at a lobbying outfit, the Podesta Group. “My larger concern about negotiations with Iran is that the Iranians may say yes to what we see is a good deal, but the reverse is also true.”

One positive outcome, Rademaker said, would be a verifiable reduction in readily available enriched uranium, either through export or dedicated use in non-weapon capacities.

Michael Makovksy, a Bush administration Pentagon official who focused on Iraq and now directs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s foreign policy projects, said pressure should increase at least until a deal is achieved.

“You could increase those chances” of a deal “if you have much tougher sanctions, a much tougher embargo on Iran, but it's unclear whether other countries will go along with that,” Makovsky said.

Another option is to ratchet up pressure by sharing with Israel advanced weapons, including the latest generation of bunker-busting bombs, and increasing the U.S. profile in the Persian Gulf, he said.

“The element we need to be focusing on is boosting the credibility of the U.S. military option and of Israel's,” Makovsky said.

Netanyahu’s other bomb


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out a cartoon drawing of a bomb during his speech to the 67th United Nations General Assembly Debate on Sept. 27, the world laughed. But I didn’t.

I thought he was one bomb cartoon short.

Netanyahu’s Wile E. Coyote-worthy drawing was meant to illustrate the urgency the world faced as Iran rushed to complete its nuclear program. The prime minister drew a red line near the top of the illustration to show the point at which Iran would enter its final stage in the development of a nuclear weapon.

If the cartoon bomb spawned a thousand Photoshop spoofs on the Internet, it also kept the Iran nuclear threat on the front page. But did it change anyone’s mind on the issue? Probably not.

What would have done that trick is a second bomb cartoon. This one would have illustrated the ticking bomb of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

That fuse has been lit since June 1967, when Israel captured Palestinian territories during the Six-Day War. 

The second cartoon would have shown the number of Palestinians in “Greater Israel” as a percentage of the Jewish population in 1967 and the number now. Then Netanyahu would draw a “red line” at the point when the number approaches something like parity, when the two-state solution will be officially dead and Israel will face two choices: a single American-style melting pot where Arabs, Jews and Christians put centuries of rancor, bloodshed and nationalistic claims aside and forge a common national identity, or civil war.

Most people think the latter is more likely.

“Even if the minimalist interpretation [of Palestinian population] is largely correct,” Michael Oren, the current Israeli ambassador to the United States, wrote in the May 2009 issue of Commentary Magazine, “it cannot alter a situation in which Israeli Arabs currently constitute one-fifth of the country’s population — one-quarter of the population under age 19 — and in which the West Bank now contains at least 2 million Arabs. Israel, the Jewish state, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent. Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist. If it remains officially Jewish, then the state will face an unprecedented level of international isolation, including sanctions, that might prove fatal.”

Oren wasn’t the first to articulate what he called the “Arab Demographic Threat” as an existential threat. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, victorious in the Six-Day War, immediately foresaw the consequences of annexation and pushed for only interim military control. In the 40 years since, more urgent threats to Israel have come and gone, but the issue of Palestinian lives intertwined with Israeli ones remains the most stubborn, and the most toxic.

“The lack of a solution to the problem of border demarcation within the historic Land of Israel — and not an Iranian bomb — is the most serious threat to Israel’s future,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a 2010 interview with Haaretz.

That’s why Netanyahu, to be even more effective, needs to show two cartoons, one of the Iranian bomb, the other of the demographic bomb. What’s more, he needs to offer Israelis, the United States and the world a vision of the future that defuses both.

Linking these two is not as odd or peace-niky as it might seem.

In a little-known paper published by the right-leaning Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, professor Yehezkel Dror argued that the best way for Israel to gain the strategic and moral upper hand following an attack on Iran is to simultaneously pursue a serious peace effort along the lines of the 10-year-old Arab Peace Initiative floated by Saudi Arabia.

Dror outlines the reasons attacking Iran may prove to be the best of many bad options. But even a successful attack, he writes, would risk alienating Israel’s friends and embolden its enemies.

By pushing a comprehensive peace proposal in concert with the Iranian attack, Israel could accomplish four objectives: reduce the danger to Israel of the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict (the second time bomb); build international and Middle East support to keep Iran from rebuilding its nuclear program; improve Israel’s global standing relative to any unintended negative consequences of an Iran attack; and, finally, prevent a deterioration in Israel-U.S. relations and help Israel upgrade its relations with China.

“An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities requires parallel political action to contain and reduce damage to Israel resulting from that attack, which could be serious,” Dror writes. “It would be beneficial, and indeed essential, for Israel, therefore, to put forth a comprehensive Middle East peace proposal. … Such an Israeli initiative would be necessary even without attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. But, given such an attack, the initiative becomes all the more critical, urgent, and opportune.”

Both an attack on Iran and a peace initiative carry grave risks and great potential rewards. Next time the prime minister finds himself in front of an international audience, he might want to consider bringing an extra sheet of poster board and another Magic Marker. 


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism

Iran may still be years away from any nuclear-armed missile


Iran already has enough low-enriched uranium for several atomic bombs if refined to a high degree but it may still be a few years away from being able to build a nuclear-armed missile if it decided to go down that path.

Israel's warning last week that Iran will be on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon by mid-2013 seemed to refer to when it could have a sufficient stock of higher-grade uranium to make a quick dash to produce a bomb's worth of weapon-grade material.

But, analysts say, Tehran would need time also for the technologically complicated task of fashioning highly refined uranium gas into a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a missile – if it opts for such weapons of mass destruction.

“If they haven't worked out all the steps with dummy materials beforehand they will have a lot to do,” said a Vienna-based diplomat who is not from one of the six world powers involved in diplomacy over Iran's disputed nuclear activity.

“Maybe they have all of the equipment ready. Maybe they have played with surrogate materials. I don't think anyone knows.”

Experts stress that timeline estimates are fraught with uncertainty as it is unclear how advanced the Islamic Republic may be in its suspected nuclear bomb research.

“I still think that we are talking about several years … before Iran could develop a nuclear weapon and certainly before they could have a deliverable nuclear weapon,” said Shannon Kile, head of the Nuclear Weapons Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank.

Iran rejects suspicions of a covert quest for atomic bomb capability. But its refusal to curb nuclear work with both civilian and military applications, and its lack of openness with U.N. inspectors, have drawn tough Western sanctions.

A high-level group of U.S. security experts – including former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage – estimated that Iran would need between one and four months to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single nuclear device.

“Additional time – up to two years, according to conservative estimates – would be required for Iran to build a nuclear warhead that would be reliably deliverable by a missile,” they said in a report published last month.

Mark Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think-tank, also said Iran would need at least two years for assembling a nuclear-tipped missile.

Senior researcher Greg Jones of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center put forward a much quicker breakout scenario for any bomb bid and suggested a truck rather than a missile could be used for delivery to target.

Iran could refine uranium for a nuclear weapon in 10 weeks and produce the required non-nuclear components in six months or less, he said, adding this could be done simultaneously.

NO BREAKOUT WITH JUST ONE BOMB?

But the IISS argued in a report last year that the weaponisation time must be added to that required to produce the fissile material to calculate when a usable bomb could be made.

Making the actual weapon entails converting uranium gas to metal, designing a nuclear triggering device and the production and fitting of spherical explosive lenses, it said.

The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last year published a report with a trove of intelligence indicating past, and some possibly continuing, research activities in Iran that could be relevant for nuclear weapons.

They included suspected high explosive experiments and possible work on designing a device to produce a burst of neutrons for setting off a fission chain reaction.

“The information indicates that prior to the end of 2003 the activities took place under a structured programme; that some continued after 2003; and that some may still be ongoing,” the IAEA said in its latest report on Iran, issued in late August.

Washington still believes that Iran is not on the verge of having a nuclear bomb and that it has not made a decision to pursue one, U.S. officials said in August.

Israel, believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, has threatened military action to stop Iran obtaining such weaponry, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week signalled any attack was not on the cards this year.

In a speech at the annual United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, Netanyahu drew a “red line” on a cartoon bomb just below a label in which Iran was 90 percent along the path to having sufficient weapons-grade material.

Experts put that at the point when Iran has amassed enough uranium, purified to a fissile level of 20 percent, that could quickly be enriched further and be used to produce a bomb.

Iran has produced more than 6.8 tonnes of uranium refined up to 5 percent since 2007, an amount experts say could be used for about five nuclear weapons if processed much further.

Worryingly for the West and Israel, some of that material has been refined to 20 percent, representing most of the effort involved in reaching potential bomb material.

According to the latest IAEA report, Iran has produced about 190 kg of this higher-grade uranium, about half of which has been earmarked for conversion into research reactor fuel, leaving a stockpile in August of just over 90 kg.

Traditionally, about 250 kg is estimated to be needed for a bomb, but some believe less would do.

“It is widely known that even a first device can be made with much less,” the diplomat in Vienna said. But, “no one breaks out to make one warhead. Estimates vary but most think three to five warheads is a minimum to be a real nuclear power.”

An Israeli official briefed on the Netanyahu government's Iran strategy told Reuters: “Once Iran gets its first device, no matter how rudimentary, it's a nuclear power and a nuclear menace. With that said, we have always noted that, from this threshold, it would take Iran another two years or so to make a deployable warhead.”

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich

At U.N., Netanyahu tries to portray Iran as ticking time bomb


For Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s all about advancing the view that a nuclear Iran is not simply a theoretical threat, but a ticking time bomb.

It’s why he’s pressing President Obama to establish explicit red lines when it comes to Iran’s nuclear progress. It’s why he came to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday brandishing a placard with a cartoonish diagram of a bomb meant to depict Iran’s nuclear threat.

And it’s why, in a first, Netanyahu offered an explicit timetable about when he believes Iran will reach the nuclear red line in 2013.

“By next spring, next summer at most,” Iran will have finished the “medium enrichment” stage, Netanyahu said in his U.N. speech, pointing to the red line he had drawn on his diagram. “From there, it’s less than a few months, possibly a few weeks, until they get enough uranium for an enriched bomb. The relevant question is not when will Iran get the bomb; the question is at what stage can we stop Iran?”

President Obama, who addressed the U.N. General Assembly two days earlier, made clear he, too, will not abide an Iranian nuclear bomb. While he agreed with Netanyahu’s assessment of the broad threats a nuclear-armed Iran would pose, he has refused to commit the United States to a red line short of Iran’s actually obtaining a weapon. (Netanyahu says Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons capability).

“Make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” Obama told the General Assembly on Tuesday. “It would threaten the annihilation of Israel, the security of Gulf nations and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That’s why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

However, Obama noted, “America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so.” 

Obama also linked the recent anti-American violence triggered by a YouTube clip of a movie insulting the Prophet Mohammed to Holocaust denial.

“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” Obama said. “But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed or the Holocaust that is denied.”

For the moment, it wasn’t clear what impact the rhetoric at the United Nations would have – on world opinion, on the U.S. stance on Iran, or on American votes for president come November. But Obama’s Iran remarks and Netanyahu’s praise for them may be a sign that public tensions between the U.S. and Israeli administrations on Iran, which spilled over into public view in recent weeks, are subsiding.

The Israeli leader reportedly had been miffed that Obama turned down a meeting with him during the General Assembly in New York. The White House countered that the president was not meeting with any world leaders. And some Democrats were irked when Netanyahu went on the Sunday morning talk shows in America to push the Iran issue, viewing it as meddling in election-year politics. That followed Netanyahu’s declaration in Israel on Sept. 11 that nations that fail to establish a clear red line on Iran “don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel” — a statement Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called “utterly contrary to the extraordinary United States-Israel alliance.”

This week, it seemed, there was an effort to move beyond these episodes. 

“I very much appreciate the president’s position, as does everyone in my country,” Netanyahu said on Thursday.

Obama’s remarks on Iran and Netanyahu’s praise for Obama “lowered the noise” on the tensions, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

While the Palestinians’ unilateral statehood bid made headlines at last year’s annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, this year it was clear that Iran was the main event, with the Palestinian issue barely a sideshow.

Even though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech gained strong applause in the cavernous hall, it didn’t get much attention elsewhere.

Abbas lashed out against Israel's “apartheid” policies against the Palestinian people and won sustained applause when he called for non-member state status at the United Nations. He talked about Israel’s “position of apartheid against the Palestinian people,” and said, “Israel is promising the Palestinian people a new catastrophe, a new Nakba. I speak on behalf of an angry people.” Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, is the term Palestinians use for Israel’s creation.

The Palestinian issue got little more than passing reference in Netanyahu's and Obama’s speeches. If anything, Obama appeared to lay more blame on the Palestinians for the standstill in negotiations, talking about the need to “leave behind those who thrive on conflict, those who reject the right of Israel to exist,” without singling out any obstacles to peace on the Israeli side.

On Wednesday, Yom Kippur, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad delivered what is likely to be his last speech at the world body, with his term set to end within a year. He made but scant reference to his country’s nuclear program, decrying how the “pledge to disclose these armaments in due time is now being used as a new language of threats against nations.” He added, “Continued threats by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to a military action against our great nation is a clear example of this bitter reality.”

The U.S. and Israeli ambassadors walked out of Ahmadinejad’s speech.

Ahmadinejad also waxed about the need for a “new world order” and spoke of a world devoid of “egoism, distrust, malicious behavior and dictatorships, with no one violating the rights of others.” Included in his list was a world with “the right to criticize the hegemonic policies and actions of the world Zionism.”

Earlier in the week, the Iranian president has said that Israel “had no roots” in the Middle East. Netanyahu devoted the opening of his speech to that.

“King David some 3,000 years ago reigned in our Jewish state in the eternal capital of our people,” Netanyahu said. “Throughout Jewish history, our people have overcome all of the tyrants that have sought our destruction. It’s their ideologies that have been discarded by history. The Jewish people live on.”

When Bibi didn’t meet Barack—a story of comity?


President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not meet, but they ended up sounding not so far apart.

Netanyahu’s address to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday in many ways echoed Obama’s speech there on Tuesday, with both ratcheting up the heat on Iran over its nuclear program. The themes that echoed in each speech suggest that despite the bickering between the two leaders, they may be converging on policy.

Obama reiterated that “containment” of a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option, a stance that is in accord with Israel’s position.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, articulated a red line — something Obama has been reluctant to do, beyond saying that Iran should not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. But the Israeli prime minister set that red line in a spot that allows the United States some more time to give diplomacy and sanctions a chance to work.

The speeches reflected a coordinated strategy to make clear to the Iranians that the United States and Israel are aligned, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The key is that the U.S. and Israel have common thresholds, and if that is conveyed to Iran publicly, that would be effective,” Makvosky told JTA. “What I saw was effective in Netanyahu's speech was that he was able to sharpen the focus on the Iranian nuclear program while not sharpening the conflict with the president.”

Netanyahu in his speech suggested that the United States and Israel were working to get on the same page. “Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together,” he said.

For all of the focus on the details of the difficult relationship between the two leaders — the fact that they are not meeting during Netanyahu’s U.S. visit made headlines — the speeches sounded similarly tough notes on Iran’s nuclear program.

“Make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” Obama said. “It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy.”

Obama has explicitly rejected containment since he spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in May. On Tuesday, the president used blunt language at a venue not as receptive to tough talk on the issue, and characterized Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel. The latter statement is the sort of warning that Netanyahu has been repeating since being elected to his second term as prime minister in 2009.

Obama concluded the Iran portion of his speech with a clear commitment to prevent a nuclear Iran: “And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Netanyahu’s speech, like Obama’s, was a no-holds-barred warning about the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Photos of Netanyahu holding up a simple drawing of a bomb with the fuse burning down made front pages. Of greater significance, than the Israeli prime minister’s stern demeanor and dramatic delivery was the red line he drew on the cartoon – more precisely, where he drew it.

The bomb represented the three stages Netanyahu says are required for Iran to achieve a nuclear weapon: Low-enriched uranium, medium-enriched uranium and high-enriched uranium. Iran is already enriching uranium to the medium levels of 20 percent.

The spot between medium-enriched and high-enriched uranium is where Netanyahu drew the red line, suggesting that Iran’s arrival at the cusp between medium- and high-enriched uranium is what should trigger a military intervention by the United States or Israel.

Making the cusp between medium- and high-enriched uranium is a major concession for Israel; Israeli officials over the summer pushed back against proposed U.S.-initiated compromises with that would allow Iran to enrich at 3.5 percent to 5 percent, insisting that Iran end all uranium enrichment. Netanyahu’s red line conceivably would accommodate compromises third parties have suggested that would allow Iran to enrich at 20 percent, or medium level.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s prediction of when the cusp between medium and high enrichment would arrive, based on International Atomic Energy Agency reports, ended speculation that Israel could go it alone with a military strike before the U.S. presidential election, which has been a key request of an array of Obama administration officials who have been arriving in Israel each week over the past several months.

“And by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage,” Netanyahu said. “From there, it's only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

Another overlap between the two speeches had to do with each leader’s call on the Muslim world to reject radicalism.

“It is time to marginalize those who — even when not directly resorting to violence — use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel, as the central organizing principle of politics,” Obama said. “For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes an excuse, for those who do resort to violence.”

Netanyahu echoed the concern about extremism: “That intolerance is directed first to their fellow Muslims and then to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, secular people, anyone who doesn't submit to their unforgiving creed. They want to drag humanity back to an age of unquestioning dogma, unrelenting conflict.”

Significantly, Obama also focused on the extremist ideology of the Iranian regime, and its ties with terrorist groups in the region – also themes that Netanyahu has emphasized. “In Iran, we see where the path of a violent and unaccountable ideology leads,” Obama said.

Netanyahu met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary on Thursday and spoke with Obama on Friday in a phone call.

A White House readout of the phone call said, “The two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

The comity between the two leaders might not last, Makovsky said, but the effort is critical. “I’m not saying the U.S. and Israel have found common ground, I'm saying there's an effort to find common ground,” he said. “Netanyahu's calculation is that it's better to make that effort.”

In case Israel goes it alone against Iran, he said, Netanyahu “will be able to look into the eyes of the mothers of Israel and say, ‘I left no stone unturned.’”

Peres says Israel can’t go it alone in Iran, trusts Obama


Israeli President Shimon Peres on Thursday came out against any go-it-alone Israeli attack on Iran, saying he trusted U.S. President Barack Obama’s pledge to prevent Tehran from producing nuclear weapons.

His comments appeared to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who have both raised the prospect of a unilateral Israeli strike, despite assurances from Washington it will not let Iran get the atomic bomb.

“I am convinced this is an American interest. I am convinced(Obama) recognizes the American interest and he isn’t saying this just to keep us happy. I have no doubt about it, after having had talks with him,” Peres told Channel Two television.

“Now, it’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone. We can delay (Iran’s nuclear program). It’s clear to us we have to proceed together with America. There are questions about coordination and timing, but as serious as the danger is, this time at least we are not alone.”

[Related: Israel minister: Possible war with Iran could be month-long affair]

A flurry of comments by Israeli officials and media reports over the past week have put financial markets on edge by appearing to suggest an attack could be launched before the U.S. presidential election in November.

An unidentified top “decision maker”, widely believed to be Barak, told Haaretz newspaper last Friday that Israel “cannot place the responsibility for its security and future even in the hands of its greatest ally”, a reference to the United States.

Peres said in the interview that he did not believe Israel would launch an attack on Iran before November.

As president, Peres, 89, has little political power in Israel. But he has won the respect of many Israelis while serving in the post and his opposition to any unilateral action poses an additional challenge to Netanyahu.

A political source close to Netanyahu issued an angry response to Peres’ comments shortly after the president’s interview was aired.

“Peres has forgotten what the role of Israel’s president is. He has forgotten that he made three major mistakes in regard to Israel’s security … his greatest mistake was in 1981 when he thought bombing the reactor in Iraq was wrong and, to the fortune of Israel’s citizens, Prime Minister Begin ignored him,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In 1981 Israeli warplanes destroyed the Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad.

Israel’s prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, had cautioned that a nuclear-armed Iraq under Saddam Hussein would pose a threat to the existence of the Jewish state and ignored then opposition leader Peres’ warnings against the strike.

AMERICAN PRESSURE

At a news conference in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it was important that military action be the “last resort”, adding that there was still time for sanctions and diplomatic pressure to work.

“I don’t believe they’ve made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time,” Panetta said.

During a visit to Jerusalem at the start of the month, he made some of his strongest comments yet on curbing Tehran’s nuclear project. “We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Period,” he told reporters.

In parliament on Thursday, Barak said Israeli deliberations on a course of action were continuing.

“There is a forum of nine (ministers), there is a (security) cabinet, and a decision, when it is required, will be taken by the Israeli government,” Barak said.

“This doesn’t mean there aren’t differences. The issue is complicated, but the issue is being deliberated,” he added.

Israeli officials have told Reuters that the prime minister’s cabinet was split on the issue, while the top military leadership was believed to be opposed to any mission that did not have full U.S. support.

“Over the past several months, a wide-ranging and unbridled public relations campaign has been conducted in Israel. Its only aim has been to prepare the ground for premature operational adventures,” said opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, who pulled his Kadima party out of the ruling coalition in July.

Iran rejects Israeli and Western allegations that its nuclear program is aimed at producing atomic weapons, and has threatened wide-ranging reprisals if attacked – retaliation that could draw the United States into the conflict.

Additional reporting by Maayen Lubell; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alison Williams

Israel hasn’t decided on Iran strike, Pentagon says


The United States does not believe Israel has made a decision on whether to attack Iran over its nuclear program, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday, following sharp rhetoric from Israeli officials that has put financial markets on edge.

Panetta, who visited Israel two weeks ago, told reporters at the Pentagon it was important that military action be the “last resort” and said there was still time for sanctions and diplomatic pressure to work.

That contrasts with Israeli warnings in recent days about the possibility of a strike. Israel’s envoy to Washington, Michael Oren, said on Monday in a CNN interview that the window of time before the need to resort to military action was “small and the window is getting smaller.” He acknowledged that Israel’s clock was ticking faster than Washington’s.

Asked about comments by Israeli officials, Panetta said: “I don’t believe they’ve made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time.”

“With regards to the issue of where we’re at from a diplomatic point of view, the reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate,” he said.

Tehran says its nuclear ambitions are peaceful and has threatened wide-ranging reprisals if attacked. A muscular response from Tehran would increase the likelihood that the United States would be drawn into any conflict.

Israel’s financial markets fell sharply on Monday in response to the intensifying debate on the prospect of going to war with Iran, although some of those losses were recovered on Tuesday.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned that any Israeli strike would not destroy Iran’s nuclear program, only delay its work.

“I may not know about all of their capabilities but I think that it’s a fair characterization to say that they could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” he said.

U.S. officials have stressed that Washington could deal a decisive blow to Iran’s nuclear sites, if necessary, and will not allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon. It’s unclear whether those assurances will be enough to forestall Israeli action.

For Israel to carry out a long-threatened strike on Iranian nuclear sites, it would have to overcome dissent within its governing coalition that reflects public fear of igniting an unprecedented missile war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that scenario would be “dwarfed” by the prospect of an Iranian bomb, which he describes as tantamount to a second Holocaust – language that seems to herald a Jewish call to arms.

But the popular, conservative leader has not proven very persuasive. While surveys show a growing minority – now 32 to 35 percent – of Israelis favor taking Iran on alone, more are opposed. Around a quarter are undecided.

White House agrees with Netanyahu on sanctions, calls for patience


White House officials agreed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assessment that sanctions have not set back Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, but counseled patience.

“We completely agree with the prime minister’s assessment that Iran has failed to make that choice and that is absolutely a disappointment,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.

Netanyahu, meeting Sunday with Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, expressed skepticism about the sanctions.

“We have to be honest and say that all the diplomacy and sanctions so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota,” he told Romney.

The Obama administration has been making the case for months to Netanyahu that he should delay any plans to strike Iran until it exhausts peaceful options.

Asked about Netanyahu’s comments in a call Tuesday with reporters, Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, also agreed with the Israeli leader.

“We continue to be dissatisfied, as Prime Minister Netanyahu is, with Iran’s continued failure to live up to its international obligations,” he said.

Rhodes said, however, that the sanctions were having a dire impact on Iran’s economy and suggested more time was needed to assess whether they would move Iran’s leadership to agree to terms for greater transparency about its nuclear activities.

“What we see today is not just a unified international community, but you see sharp divisions within the Iranian political system, far more so than we have seen in many years,” Rhodes said. “And I think that is a testament to the pressure that they’re under.”

Rhodes said that what the Obama administration has accomplished “is a steady ratcheting up the pressure that is increasing the cost for the Iranians in failing to make the right decisions. And until they do shift course, we will continue to look for ways to increase the impact.”

Netanyahu on deadly Bulgaria bombing: ‘All signs point to Iran’


A Black Sea coast town in Bulgaria became the scene of carnage when a bus carrying Israeli tourists exploded, killing at least five people and injuring at least 33. Nine people reportedly were missing.

The explosion Wednesday at Sarafovo International Airport in Burgas hit one of three tour buses carrying Israelis, Israel’s Channel 1 reported. Some news reports said a suicide bomber boarded the bus as it was taking the Israeli tourists to the terminal. Others quoted Burgas Mayor Dimitar Nikolov as saying that explosives were in the luggage area of the bus.

A video on Ynet showed black smoke billowing upward. Sirens at the scene could be heard.

The attack, which Israel’s government is blaming on Iran, comes on the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that left 85 people dead. Israel, Argentina and many other governments blame Iranian agents for that incident; Tehran denies the allegations.

“All signs point to Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “In just the past few months we’ve seen Iran try to target Israelis in Thailand, India, Georgia, Cyprus and more. The murderous Iranian terror continues to target innocent people. This is a global Iranian terror onslaught and Israel will react forcefully to it.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak added, “This is clearly a terrorist attack initiated probably by Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad or another group under the terror auspices of either Iran or other radical Islamic groups. We are in a continual fight against them. We are determined to identify who sent them, who perpetrated [the attack], and to settle the account.”

The Lebanese-based Hezbollah, which is armed by Iran, denied responsibility for the attack, according to the website Novinite.com.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said his government “strongly condemns this aggression and terrorism.”

“Such a horrible act committed on the territory of a sovereign country, a member of the EU, is a provocation at the efforts of the democratic society towards world peace,”  Borisov said, according to the FOCUS News Agency. “I guarantee that we will investigate this incident so as to punish the perpetrators with the entire severeness of the law. I am convinced that the Bulgarian and the Israeli nations will get stronger and more united after this tragedy.”

The mayor of the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, home to nearly 5,000 Jews, ordered stepped-up police patrols of areas linked to the Jewish community, according to reports.

Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces Chief, ordered the Home Front Command, the Israel Air Force and the Medical Corps to send a team to Bulgaria Wednesday night to provide medical care and to assist those injured as they return to Israel. The team is led by a senior IDF officer and includes doctors specializing in trauma, orthopedics, intensive care, surgery, burns and pediatrics.

Likewise, the Israel-based ZAKA Rescue and Recovery Organization told JTA that it hired a private jet to fly to Burgas. The plane, which is scheduled to land in Bulgaria at about 11 p.m. local time, is carrying seven volunteers, a doctor and a paramedic, as well as medical equipment and equipment to help identify the Israelis who were killed.

President Obama condemned the “barbaric terrorist attack,” according to The Associated Press. “As Israel has tragically once more been a target of terrorism, the United States reaffirms our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security, and our deep friendship and solidarity with the Israeli people.”

Immediately after the explosion, Ben Gurion International Airport was closed, delaying 11 flights. However, the airport reopened between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. to allow the flights to proceed.

Novinite.com reported that Bulgarian authorities foiled a bomb attack in January on a charter bus for Israeli tourists heading from the Turkish border to a Bulgarian ski resort. A bomb was found on the bus.

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

Top U.S. think tank warns against Israeli, American strike on Iran


The RAND Corporation, a think tank which advises the Pentagon, warned on Tuesday against an Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear reactors, and recommended the Obama administration try to “quietly influence the internal Israeli discussion over the use of military force.”

In a document published in the think tank’s periodical, Rand Review, RAND openly disagreed with the belligerent stance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, which are set to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other high-ranking officials over the next several days. In doing so, and without naming names, RAND sided with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former head of the Shin Bet Yuval Diskin.

RAND’s call to prevent an Israeli strike and to come to terms with a nuclear Iran, on the condition that it does not test or deploy nuclear weapons, was published a week before the second round of the P5+1 talks with Iran in Baghdad, with a clear intention of influencing the Western position during the talks.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

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

Kerry tells Peres: Obama is committed to keeping nukes from Iran


U.S. Sen. John Kerry told Israeli President Shimon Peres that there is “no doubt” about President Obama’s commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, met Tuesday morning in Jerusalem with Peres. Kerry is on an official visit to the Middle East.

“If I can just say to you and to the people of Israel: I hope there is no doubt about President Obama’s seriousness and commitment that Iran should not have and cannot have a nuclear weapon,” Kerry said during the meeting, according to Peres’ office. “The president has made it clear that he is not talking about containment, he is talking about prevention.”

Peres replied that he has complete confidence in Obama and his commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Israeli leader suggested during their discussion that neither Israel nor the Palestinians can afford to wait until after the U.S. elections in November to make advances toward peace.

“The following months are critical,” he said, “and we must navigate through this period with care and wisdom.”

Kerry congratulated Peres on being named a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among the highest honors presented by the United States.

IDF chief: Other countries are prepared for possible Iran strike


Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said on Thursday that other countries have readied their armed forces for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear sites to keep Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons.

Gantz did not specify which nations might be willing to support or take direct action against Iran. Still, his comments were one of the strongest hints yet that Israel may have the backing of other countries to strike the Islamic Republic to prevent it from developing nuclear arms.“The military force is ready,” Gantz said. “Not only our forces, but other forces as well.”

“We all hope that there will be no necessity to use this force, but we are absolutely sure of its existence,” he told The Associated Press, adding that he was not speaking on behalf of any other nation.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

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

Could bombing Iran push it to build the bomb?


Pre-emptive military strikes aimed at forcing Iran to abandon its nuclear activities may end up having the opposite effect: convincing the Islamic Republic’s leaders they need an atomic arsenal to secure their hold on power.

That is the argument from those in the West and elsewhere who say the negative impact of an Israeli or U.S. attack would eventually outweigh any gains – pushing Iran towards a decision that Western intelligence services believe it has not yet taken.

“It is difficult to see a single action more likely to drive Iran into taking the final decision to acquire nuclear weapons than an attack on the country,” the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland said in an opinion piece in the New York Times.

“And once such a decision was made, it would only be a matter of time before a nuclear-armed Iran became a reality,” Carl Bildt and Erkki Tuomioja added.

Israel says Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a threat to the Jewish state’s very existence and that time is running short to stop Tehran taking the irreversible step of acquiring the bomb.

But an attack may delay Iran’s nuclear drive only by a few years and would probably lead to an acceleration of the atomic program, the expulsion of U.N. inspectors and the Iranian people rallying around their leaders, the International Crisis Group think-tank said in a report citing unnamed U.S. officials.

“Once U.N. inspectors are expelled, Iran could reconstitute its nuclear infrastructure, this time unambiguously geared to producing a bomb,” ICG analyst Ali Vaez told Reuters.

A similar message came from former CIA director Michael Hayden, who said the George W. Bush administration had concluded that a strike on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites was a bad idea, according to a Foreign Policy magazine blog.

An attack would guarantee the very thing that the West was trying to prevent – “an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret”, Hayden was quoted as telling reporters and experts in January.

Iran is relatively weak in conventional weaponry, compared to Israel and other Middle Eastern states, and may feel it has little choice but to develop nuclear bombs if “pushed into a corner”, said military researcher Pieter Wezeman.

“If Israel or the U.S. would try to attack Iran and its strategic centers and its industry, Iran basically does not have the conventional means to defend itself,” Wezeman, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told Reuters.

“Based on that weakness they are likely to find nuclear arms an interesting option. They don’t want to be seen as losers, not internationally and not within Iran.”

Any such feeling of military vulnerability in Iran – which often accuses adversaries of plotting to overturn its Islamic Revolution – would be compounded by Israel’s assumed nuclear arsenal and the still strong presence of U.S. armed forces in the volatile Gulf region.

TALKS MAY OFFER “BREATHING SPACE”

There is general agreement among Western powers that Iran has already taken steps that would give it the option of becoming a nuclear-armed power, if it so decided.

It has ramped up its uranium enrichment, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said last month, voicing “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions” to the nuclear activities.

Western experts say Iran now has enough refined uranium -material which can yield energy or weapons, depending on the level of enrichment – for four bombs if processed much further.

Crucially, however, the U.S. administration has concluded that Iranian leaders have not decided whether to actively construct a nuclear weapon, current and former officials have told Reuters.

“The U.S. intel community says with high confidence that Iran has made a capability decision, not a bomb decision,” said Jim Walsh, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “Bombing them will produce a bomb decision, and that will be very difficult to stop.”

Iran expert Trita Parsi said: “You can’t convince a country that it doesn’t need a nuclear deterrence by bombing it.”

But Bruno Tertrais of the Strategic Research Foundation, a French think-tank, said nobody could claim to know the impact of an attack and he suggested it could be difficult for Iran to launch a nuclear weapons bid afterwards.

“Iran would be closely monitored and would then take the risk to be bombed again, before it actually produces deliverable weapons,” Tertrais said.

“One needs to differentiate between an Israeli and a U.S. operation: the latter would be bigger, leave few stones unturned, and might very well shake up the foundations of the regime.”

Israel has threatened Tehran with pre-emptive strikes if diplomacy fails to stop its nuclear progress. U.S. President Barack Obama says all options are on the table, including possible military action, in dealing with Tehran.

Israel worries that Iran will soon have moved enough of its nuclear program underground as to make it virtually impervious to a unilateral Israeli attack, creating what Defense Minister Ehud Barak has referred to as a “zone of immunity”.

But Obama – who has accused U.S. Republican presidential candidates of “beating the drums of war” while failing to consider the consequences – is also encouraging Israel to give sanctions against Iran more time to have an effect.

The Jewish state this week played down the prospect of an imminent attack, saying Iran’s nuclear program could still be set back by sanctions and sabotage.

Six world powers and Iran are in mid-April expected to resume long-stalled negotiations aimed at finding a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear dispute, a dialogue which may for now cool speculation of imminent war.

“I’m not optimistic on the talks, but I do think they could at the very least open a temporary breathing space for all sides,” said Gala Riani of risk consultancy Control Risks.

NUCLEAR DETERRENCE

If Israel in the end decides to strike, Vaez of the International Crisis Group said “it was easy to imagine” that Iran would withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a 1970 pact to prevent the spread of atomic weapons.

Iran’s envoy to the U.N. nuclear agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, warned this month that any attack by a non-NPT member – Israel – on the nuclear sites of a country that is party to the treaty would inevitably lead to the pact’s “collapse.”

MIT’s Walsh said Iran might need years to recover from an attack but it would not destroy its know-how and would “present a window of opportunity for pro-bomb advocates” in the country.

Short of a full-scale war or occupation, “most military options are oversold as to their ability to end or even significantly delay Iran’s nuclear program,” the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said.

A vast country, Iran has dispersed its program across many facilities, some whose locations may remain secret.

“An ineffective bombing campaign … would leave Iran able to quickly rebuild its program and motivate it to launch its own Manhattan Project,” the Washington-based think-tank said, referring to the U.S. atomic bomb program in World War Two.

But the view in Israel is that any action that can delay nuclear militarization is beneficial, “because it might maximize opportunities for other events, such as regime change in Iran”, the International Crisis Group report said.

Iran, a major oil producer that denies any nuclear weapons aims and officially condemns nuclear weaponry as a “great sin”, says it needs uranium enriched to a low level to fuel a planned network of nuclear power plants.

It came under intensifying Western sanctions pressure after the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in a November report, presented a trove of intelligence pointing to activities in Iran relevant for nuclear weapons development.

Former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said he still did not see “incontrovertible evidence” that Iran was working on an atomic bomb and that the question of whether it intends to make one was a matter of opinion and debate.

He said an attack would be a “sure way for Iran to go on a crash course to build nuclear weapons with the full support of the Iranian people … and with the most catastrophic consequences for the Middle East and the rest of the world.”

ElBaradei, who ran the IAEA for 12 years to the end of 2009, was outspoken in his skepticism of Western intelligence after erroneous reports about secret weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were used by the United States to justify the 2003 invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein.

The risks posed by Iran’s nuclear program “need not be hyped,” he said in an email to Reuters. “We should by now have learned some lessons from the Iraq disaster.”

Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Mark Heinrich

Opinion: Bomb/Not Bomb


If you can’t hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time, Jewish life is not for you. 

Two weeks ago, at the massive AIPAC war council — I mean, gathering — in Washington, D.C., Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that an Iran on the cusp of nuclear weapons is another Auschwitz. The threat, he argued, is not just existential, but imminent. At Netanyahu’s high-profile meeting with President Barack Obama, he conveyed the message that if America isn’t prepared to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities soon, Israel won’t hesitate.

But this past week in Los Angeles, Israel’s President Shimon Peres told an audience of more than 1,000 community members at the Beverly Hilton that there is a chance for diplomacy and sanctions to work. Although he didn’t say, “There’s no rush,” in those exact words, he implied as much.

And then, just a few days after Peres’ visit, Meir Dagan came to town. Dagan is the former chief of Mossad who, until he left his post last year, was primarily responsible for delaying and disabling Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. At a private reception in Bel Air on Saturday night, he told a few dozen well-heeled Israel supporters that for Israel to attack any time soon would be a huge mistake.

The Israeli-born philanthropist Daphne Ziman hosted Dagan at her home, and according to several attendees at the private event (press wasn’t invited), he did not hold back.

He told the group that the key in Iran is regime change. It’s not about eliminating nuclear weapons — Israel will have to live with an Iran with nuclear power — but the regime.

Dagan said an attack would not cause permanent damage, and that if you bomb, you will unite Iranians around their regime.

Iran, he said, can be turned into an ally. Its population is largely young, and many in the new generation are pro-American. And there’s a way of tapping into them, though as long as the current regime is in power, that will be impossible.

Nuclear power in Iran is a reality, but war will bring uncertainty and an unknown outcome, he said.

The real focus, Dagan concluded, should be Syria. The tragic oppression in Syria offers the West an opportunity to support opposition and bring it into a Western alliance. The revolution there is less about Islamic fundamentalism and more about standing up against brutality, Dagan said.

Why was Dagan so straightforward, breaking a code of omertà that had sealed the lips of past Mossad directors? The Israeli government is too focused on winning elections, he said, it’s not about leadership. Therefore, Dagan said he’s not willing to mince words anymore. 

Sunday evening, in an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Dagan said much the same thing, but to the world.

“You have said publicly that bombing Iran now is the stupidest idea you’ve ever heard,” correspondent Lesley Stahl stated. “That’s a direct quote.”

“An attack on Iran before you are exploring all other approaches is not the right way how to do it,” Dagan replied. 

Dagan said the window of action on Iran could be as long as three years, and if any country should attack, it should be the United States.

“The issue of Iran armed with a nuclear capability is not an Israeli problem,” he told Stahl. “It’s an international problem.”

Dagan was in Los Angeles to receive an award from the Israeli Leadership Council on Sunday night at the Beverly Hilton. It was a huge, festive event with a performance by Israeli singer Rita, and honoring former Consul General Ehud Danoch along with Dagan. 

Dagan received his award with a gracious, brief and non-political speech. (He said he had no idea how large, vital and powerful the Israeli Jewish community is in Los Angeles. Which made me wonder: Wasn’t he head of the Mossad? If he was in the dark about Los Angeles, how much does he really know about Tehran?)

But there you have it: The prime minister of Israel is hinting Israel can’t wait to “act”; the president and former Mossad chief are saying “hold on.” Netanyahu compares Iranian nukes to Auschwitz; Dagan is saying, free Syria. Dagan says Iranians are essentially rational; Netanyahu says they’re nuts, willing to destroy themselves to destroy Israel.

At the Peres event Thursday night, I asked Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren how an Israeli prime minister makes a final decision, given all the conflicting advice and information. Before he was ambassador, Oren was one of Israel’s preeminent historians, so naturally he reached back for precedents.

Peres is the last active Israeli leader who was around in 1948, when, as Oren pointed out, then-U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall warned Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that the surrounding Arab armies would crush Israel if he declared independence. Ben-Gurion risked the declaration.

And, in 1967, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol faced similar life-and-death decisions over whether and when to launch a preemptive war against surrounding Arab armies.

President Peres took part in all those agonizing, historic decisions. This moment, I said to Oren, seems to be like those — full of dread and portent and absolutely conflicting opinions. Has Oren ever asked the president how, ultimately, a prime minister decides?

“We’ve spoken about it for hours,” Oren told me. “And I remember one time he said to me that, at the end of the day, a leader has to lead.”

U.S. official: Netanyahu asked Panetta to approve sale of bunker-busting bombs


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested the United States approve the sale of advanced refueling aircraft as well as GBU-28 bunker-piercing bombs to Israel during a recent meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a top U.S. official said on Tuesday.

The American official said that U.S. President Barack Obama instructed Panetta to work directly with Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the matter, indicating that the U.S. administration was inclined to approve the request as soon as possible.

During the administration of former U.S. President George Bush, the U.S. refused to sell bunker-penetrating bombs and refueling aircrafts to Israel, as a result of American estimates that Israel would then use them to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

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.