Alleged Syrian chemical attack against civilians ‘terribly disturbing,’ Netanyahu says


Israel said on Thursday it believed Syrian forces had used chemical weapons in the killing of hundreds of people in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, and accused the world of turning a blind eye to such attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said if Syria is not punished, its ally Iran could be encouraged to develop nuclear weapons.

“Syria has become Iran's testing ground, and Iran is closely watching whether and how the world responds to the atrocities committed by Iran's client state Syria … against innocent civilians in Syria,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

“These events prove yet again that we simply cannot allow the world's most dangerous regimes to acquire the world's most dangerous weapons.”

Opposition activists have accused Assad's forces of gassing hundreds, including women and children, on Wednesday, allegations which government officials deny.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday the international community needed to respond with force if the allegations of a Syrian government chemical attack proved true, although there was no question of sending troops on the ground.

For Israel, the conflict in its northern neighbour is a battle between two evils: Assad – who is allied with two of its most strident enemies, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas – and Sunni jihadists fighting with rebels to oust him.

Wednesday's incident, carried out while U.N. inspectors were in Damascus to look into allegations of earlier chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, was seized by Israel as an opportunity to question international resolve to curb its foes' suspected pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

“It is absurd that the UN investigators, who are right now in Damascus to verify use of chemical weapons, are prevented from reaching the afflicted areas by the Syrian regime,” Netanyahu said.

The Assad government has denied using chemical weapons against Syrians. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons. Israel is widely assumed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal.

Interviewed on Israel Radio, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said that according to “Israeli intelligence assessments”, chemical weapons had been used in the rebel-held eastern Damascus suburbs, and “not for the first time” in Syria's civil war.

Steinitz did not provide further details. Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon made similar remarks on Wednesday.

“Nothing tangible or significant has been done in the past two years to halt Assad's incessant massacre of his citizens,” Steinitz said. “The world condemns, the world investigates, the world pays lip service.”

Israel has stopped short of urging Western military intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Israel has on several occasions taken action of its own, firing into Syria after mortar bombs and shells from battles near the frontier struck inside the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel captured the Golan from Syria in a 1967 war.

Yisrael Katz, Israel's transportation minister, said the alleged horror of gas attacks on Syrians resonated strongly in the Jewish state, founded after the Nazi Holocaust in which many of the six million Jewish dead were killed in gas chambers.

Israel has long conducted a national gas mask distribution programme for the civilian population. It has accused Syria of stockpiling chemical weapons and voiced concern they could be transferred to Hezbollah or other hostile groups.

“Today he (Assad) is murdering his own people, tomorrow he will threaten us and perhaps worse,” Katz told Israel Radio.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis; Editing by Pravin Char and Sonya Hepinstall

Iranian national accused of planning attack on Israeli embassy in Nepal


Security at the Israeli Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, detained an Iranian man believed to be planning a terror attack on the embassy and on Israeli visitors.

The man, caught scouting the building, was discovered to have a fake Israeli passport, which he acquired in Kuala Lumpur sometime after March 31 and used to enter Nepal, according to The Himalayan.

The Iranian national, identified as Mohsin Khosravian,  was arrested on April 13 after Israeli security personnel turned him over to Nepalese police and he remains in police custody, according to the news website. 

Nepal Police's Central Bureau of Investigation and Special Bureau are investigating his “frequent and suspicious visits” to the Israeli Embassy area, The Himalayan reported. He has been charged under the Public Offense Act.

Khosravian has been living in Bangkok since 2004 and has been married to a Thai woman for five years.

Israel has accused Iran of being involved in coordinated attacks on Israeli missions in New Delhi, India and Tbilisi, Georgia on Feb. 13, 2012.

Researchers say Stuxnet was deployed against Iran in 2007


Researchers at Symantec Corp. have uncovered a version of the Stuxnet computer virus that was used to attack Iran's nuclear program in November 2007, two years earlier than previously thought.

Planning for the cyber weapon, the first publicly known example of a virus being used to attack industrial machinery, began at least as early as 2005, according to an 18-page report that the security software company published on Tuesday.

Stuxnet, which is widely believed to have been developed by the United States and Israel, was uncovered in 2010 after it was used to attack a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, Iran. That facility has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the United States, Israel and allies, who charge that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb.

Symantec said its researchers had uncovered a piece of code, which they called “Stuxnet 0.5,” among the thousands of versions of the virus that they had recovered from infected machines.

Stuxnet 0.5 was designed to attack the Natanz facility by opening and closing valves that feed uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges, without the knowledge of the operators of the facility, according to Symantec.

The virus was being developed early as 2005, when Iran was still setting up its uranium enrichment facility, said Symantec researcher Liam O'Murchu. That facility went online in 2007.

“It is really mind blowing that they were thinking about creating a project like that in 2005,” O'Murchu told Reuters in ahead of the report's release at the RSA security conference, an event attended by more than 20,000 security professionals, in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Symantec had previously uncovered evidence that planning for Stuxnet began in 2007. The New York Times reported in June 2012 that the impetus for the project dated back to 2006, when U.S. President George W. Bush was looking for options to slow Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Previously discovered versions of Stuxnet are all believed to have been used to sabotage the enrichment process by changing the speeds of those gas-spinning centrifuges without the knowledge of their operators.

Since Stuxnet's discovery in 2010, security researchers have uncovered a handful of other sophisticated pieces of computer code that they believe were developed to engage in espionage and warfare. These include Flame, Duqu and Gauss.

Stuxnet 0.5 was written using much of the same code as Flame, a sophisticated virus that researchers have previously said was primarily used for espionage, Symantec said.

Hezbollah denies involvement in Burgas attack


Hezbollah denied it was involved in a terrorist attack in Bulgaria that killed six, including five Israelis.

Two days after the Bulgarian government implicated two men with links to Hezbollah to the terrorist attack last July, deputy Hezbollah leader Naim Qassem said Thursday that Israel is making “allegations and incitements and accusations against Hezbollah” because it has not succeeded in defeating it militarily, Reuters reported.

“Israel is leading an international campaign to intimidate people and countries against Hezbollah,” Qassem reportedly told religious students in southern Beirut. “We will not submit to these pressures and we will not change our priorities. Our compass will remain directed towards Israel.”

Hezbollah and Israel fought a monthlong war in 2006.

Bulgaria's interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, told reporters on Tuesday that Hezbollah also financed the bomb attack on a tour bus full of Israelis.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said his government would cooperate with Bulgarian investigators, according to Reuters. The people directly behind the attack were part of a Hezbollah cell that included two operatives using passports from Australia and Canada, he said.

Israel has blamed Hezbollah and Iran for the attack, which also killed the Israeli tourists' Bulgarian bus driver. Iran has denied responsibility and accused Israel of staging the attack.

Clinton warns Russia, Iran of Syria conflict spreading


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Iran and Russia on Thursday to rethink their support for Syria, saying the most dire scenarios of the conflict spilling beyond its borders could come to pass.

Clinton told reporters there are signs Iran is sending more people and increasingly sophisticated weaponry to support Syrian President Bashar Assad in his 22-month battle against rebels seeking to end his family's four-decades of authoritarian rule.

Speaking on the eve of her State Department departure, Clinton also said Russia continues aid to the Syrian government, including financially, and she appeared skeptical that Moscow was easing in its opposition to Assad's departure.

Clinton declined comment on reports Israel had bombed Syria on Wednesday but she voiced fears that the conflict, in which more than 60,000 people are believed to have died, may worsen internally and spread.

“I personally have been warning for quite some time of the dangers associated with an increasingly lethal civil war and a potential proxy war,” Clinton told a small group of reporters a day before she is to be replaced by Senator John Kerry.

“Therefore, I think it's incumbent on those nations that have refused to be constructive players to reconsider their positions because the worst kind of predictions of what could happen internally and spilling over the borders of Syria are certainly within the realm of the possible now,” she added.

Diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources said Israeli jets bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border on Wednesday, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah. Syria denied the reports, saying the target was a military research center northwest of Damascus and 8 miles from the border.

Syria warned of a possible “surprise” response to Israel over the reported attack while Hezbollah, an Iranian ally that also supports Assad, said Israel was trying to thwart Arab military power and vowed to stand by its ally.

PRAISE FOR ALKHATIB

Clinton said that the United States was worried that Iran had recently increased its support for Assad.

“It appears that they may be increasing that involvement and that is a matter of great concern to us,” she said.

“I think the numbers (of people) have increased,” she added. “There is a lot of concern that they are increasing the quality of the weapons, because Assad is using up his weaponry. So it's numbers and it's materiel.”

She made similar comments about Russia.

“We have reason to believe that the Russians continue to supply financial and military assistance in the form of equipment,” she said. “They are doing it in the recent past.”

Russia has been Assad's most important ally throughout the 22-month-old Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful street protests and evolved into an armed uprising against his rule.

Moscow has blocked three Security Council resolutions aimed at pushing him out or pressuring him to end the bloodshed. But Russia has also distanced itself from Assad by saying it is not trying to prop him up and will not offer him asylum.

Clinton appeared skeptical Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's comment this week that Assad's chances of staying in power were growing “smaller and smaller” might herald a fundamental shift in Russia's stance.

“On the Russians, Medvedev included, we have heard rhetoric before over the last now nearly two years that we thought provided an opening … unfortunately, all of that rhetoric has failed to translate into changes in Russian policy,” she said.

Clinton praised the head of Syria's main opposition coalition, Mouaz Alkhatib, for saying this week that he was ready to hold talks with Assad representatives outside Syria if authorities released tens of thousands of detainees.

“I thought he was not only courageous but smart in saying that if certain conditions are met we will begin discussing a political transition because you have to you know make it clear that there will be something other than hardened fighters when this conflict finally ends,” Clinton said. “Otherwise, it might not ever end in the foreseeable future.”

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Lisa Shumaker

Syria warns of ‘surprise’ response to Israel attack


Syria warned on Thursday of a possible “surprise” response to Israel's attack on its territory and Russia condemned the air strike as an unprovoked violation of international law.

Damascus could take “a surprise decision to respond to the aggression of the Israeli warplanes”, Syrian ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul-Karim Ali said a day after Israel struck against Syria.

“Syria is engaged in defending its sovereignty and its land,” Ali told a website of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Syria and Israel have fought several wars and in 2007 Israeli jets bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear site, without a military response from Damascus.

Diplomats, Syrian rebels and regional security sources said on Wednesday that Israeli jets had bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah. Syria denied the reports, saying the target had been a military research center northwest of Damascus.

Hezbollah, which has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he battles an armed uprising in which 60,000 people have been killed, said Israel was trying to thwart Arab military power and vowed to stand by its ally.

“Hezbollah expresses its full solidarity with Syria's leadership, army and people,” said the group which fought an inconclusive 34-day war with Israel in 2006.

Israel has remained silent on the attack and there has been little reaction from its Western backers, but Syria's allies in Moscow and Tehran were quick to denounce the strike.

Russia, which has blocked Western efforts to put pressure on Syria at the United Nations, said that any Israeli air strike would amount to unacceptable military interference.

“If this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked attacks on targets on the territory of a sovereign country, which blatantly violates the U.N. Charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motives to justify it,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdullahian said the attack “demonstrates the shared goals of terrorists and the Zionist regime”, Fars news agency reported. Assad portrays the rebels fighting him as foreign-backed, Islamist terrorists, with the same agenda as Israel.

“It is necessary for the sides which take tough stances on Syria to now take serious steps and decisive stances against this aggression by Tel Aviv and uphold criteria for security in the region,” Abdullahian said.

An aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday that Iran would consider any attack on Syria as an attack on itself, but Abdullahian made no mention of retaliation.

Hezbollah said the attack showed that the conflict in Syria was part of a scheme “to destroy Syria and its army and foil its pivotal role in the resistance front (against Israel)”.

BLASTS SHOOK DISTRICT

Details of Wednesday's strike remain sketchy and, in parts, contradictory. Syria said Israeli warplanes, flying low to avoid detection by radar, crossed into its airspace from Lebanon and struck the Jamraya military research centre.

But the diplomats and rebels said the jets hit a weapons convoy heading from Syria to Lebanon, apparently destined for Assad's ally Hezbollah, and the rebels said they – not Israel – hit Jamraya with mortars.

The force of the dawn attack shook the ground, waking nearby residents from their slumber with up to a dozen blasts, two sources in the area said.

“We were sleeping. Then we started hearing rockets hitting the complex and the ground started shaking and we ran into the basement,” said a woman who lives adjacent to the Jamraya site.

The resident, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity over Israel's reported strike on Wednesday morning, said she could not tell whether the explosions which woke her were the result of an aerial strike.

Another source who has a relative working inside Jamraya reported that a building inside the complex had been cordoned off after the attack and that flames were seen rising from the area after the attack.

“It appears that there were about a dozen rockets that appeared to hit one building in the complex,” the source, who also asked not to be identified, told Reuters. “The facility is closed today.”

Israeli newspapers quoted foreign media on Thursday for reports on the attack. Journalists in Israel are required to submit articles on security and military issues to the censor, which has the power to block any publication of material it deems could compromise state security.

Syrian state television said two people were killed in the raid on Jamraya, which lies in the 25-km (15-mile) strip between Damascus and the Lebanese border. It described it as a scientific research centre “aimed at raising the level of resistance and self-defense”.

Diplomatic sources from three countries told Reuters that chemical weapons were believed to be stored at Jamraya, and that it was possible that the convoy was near the large site when it came under attack. However, there was no suggestion that the vehicles themselves had been carrying chemical weapons.

“The target was a truck loaded with weapons, heading from Syria to Lebanon,” said one Western diplomat, echoing others who said the convoy's load may have included anti-aircraft missiles or long-range rockets.

The raid followed warnings from Israel that it was ready to act to prevent the revolt against Assad leading to Syria's chemical weapons and modern rockets reaching either his Hezbollah allies or his Islamist enemies.

A regional security source said Israel's target was weaponry given by Assad's military to fellow Iranian ally Hezbollah.

“This episode boils down to a warning by Israel to Syria and Hezbollah not to engage in the transfer of sensitive weapons,” the source said. “Assad knows his survival depends on his military capabilities and he would not want those capabilities neutralized by Israel – so the message is this kind of transfer is simply not worth it, neither for him nor Hezbollah.”

Such a strike or strikes would fit Israel's policy of pre-emptive covert and overt action to curb Hezbollah and does not necessarily indicate a major escalation of the war in Syria. It does, however, indicate how the erosion of the Assad family's rule after 42 years is seen by Israel as posing a threat.

Israel this week echoed concerns in the United States about Syrian chemical weapons, but its officials say a more immediate worry is that the civil war could see weapons that are capable of denting its massive superiority in airpower and tanks reaching Hezbollah; the group fought Israel in 2006 and remains a more pressing threat than its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.

Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow and Marcus George in Dubai; editing by David Stamp

Bulgarian police identify accomplice in Burgas bombing


Bulgaria’s security services reportedly have discovered the identity of one of the perpetrators of the July bombing in Burgas that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian.

The Bulgarian news agency Novinite reported Thursday that the discovery was the first time Bulgarian authorities had tracked down an individual suspect, as the bomber and another accomplice are known only by their aliases.

The report did not name the newly discovered accomplice. Bulgarian authorities have no suspects in custody in connection with the case.

American and Israeli intelligence officials attribute the suicide bombing at the seaside resort to a joint Hezbollah-Iran operation. According to a report in The New York Times, Israel’s intelligence apparatus intercepted telephone calls between Lebanon and Burgas months ahead of the bombing.

Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization in the United States but not in the European Union, could be classified as such also in Europe if it is found to have perpetrated an attack on EU soil.

The bomber was known under the alias of Jacque Felipe Martin and he had an accomplice with the alias of Ralph Willima Rico. Neither of the suspect's true identities has been discovered, according to Novinite. Martin, Rico and the third accomplice, whose true identity has been discovered, all used fake U.S. identification documents from the state of Michigan.

The blast on the bus occurred soon after a charter plane, Air Bulgaria flight 392 from Ben-Gurion Airport, landed at Burgas Airport. The bus was the second of four carrying Israeli tourists from the airport to hotels in the city.

Israel-Gaza conflict: Low expectations


No one knows for sure why the Gaza hostilities began. 

We know that there had been weeks of intensifying rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, rockets fired by various Palestinian groups that were tolerated, even encouraged by the governing Hamas. And we know that the Israeli government had reached its limit of tolerance for such attacks, possibly, though not primarily, because elections are coming up, and the Israeli public wanted something done. We also know that what ignited the final escalation of this cycle of violence was Israel’s assassination of Hamas’ military chief on Nov. 14. We know that, following every such action, a barrage of rockets can be expected. We know, as well, that such a barrage is invitation for even more retaliation, and so on and so forth. 

Israelis got a glimpse last week of the damage Hamas can inflict on Israel; they discovered that Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are, indeed, within the reach of rockets from Gaza. That Hamas’ threats are no joke. But Israelis still don’t know why it all began. What was the calculus behind Hamas’ decision to allow and abet this growing harassment of Israeli civilians? What was the logic behind it, assuming there is some such logic? What was Hamas trying to achieve?

Not knowing Hamas’ goals is a problem for all those trying to assess Hamas’ ability to actually meet those goals. As this article was being written, attempts at negotiations were taking place to reach an agreement that would put an end to the fighting. Israelis will be happy if such agreement can end the barrage of rockets on its territory. Israeli leaders believe the country demonstrated last week that its citizens are willing to temporarily increase their own suffering in hope of getting a better long-term deal. And they also demonstrated the ability of Israel’s defensive tool — the Iron Dome — to dramatically decrease damage to Israel’s citizens in case of war. And that is an important message not just for Hamas, but also for all other potential attackers, such as Hezbollah and Iran. 

Of course, it is possible that Hamas had just miscalculated its way into this week of skirmishes; it is possible that its leaders did not quite understand that Israel had reached the boiling point. Back in 2006, when Ehud Olmert abruptly launched the second Lebanon war, it was widely assumed — even publicly admitted — by Hezbollah leaders that the other side didn’t see it coming. That Hassan Nasrallah believed he could kidnap Israeli soldiers and get away with it. So it’s possible that the leaders of Hamas are guilty of a similar misperception; it’s possible they didn’t expect the harsh response they got.

However, other possibilities must also be considered. Maybe Hamas needed the fight. Maybe it needed to reassert its presence as a player that can make things complicated for all parties just as the Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by Mahmoud Abbas, was going to the United Nations to get the coveted seat of an almost official member. Maybe Hamas was trying to send a message to a disappointing Egyptian government that had not yet proven itself to be the ally Hamas expected it to be. 

The raging events around Gaza are a distraction from more urgent matters engulfing the Middle East and threatening to turn 2013 into a year much more challenging and dramatic than the year that is about to end. Lost behind the Gaza headlines is the recent report that the Iranians have completed yet another step in building their nuclear program. Pushed aside from attention are the much more bloody — but repetitious — events in Syria. 

The nature of small wars such as the one involving Gaza is that the context is always overwhelmed by the details. Another siren, another rocket, another Israeli attack from the air, more reservists join the troops, more injured, and dead; the hours pass, the days pass, but after a while, it all becomes blurred and seems cyclical. Each rocket fired matters only the moment it hits, or, in most cases, misses. Each siren matters only for the couple of minutes until the danger is over. Most of the occurrences of the past week — which I write abut with the caveat of a Nov. 19 press time — were quickly forgotten, negligible in their impact on the larger scheme of things. 

The final outcome of the battle is what matters, and, strangely, while no one can quite explain why the war started, everyone has known from the outset how it is supposed to end: a cease fire, the return to the status quo. No more rockets fired at Israel; no attacks from the Israeli side. Until the next round. The Gaza pressure cooker had to let some steam off before returning to normal (which is hardly what people in most other countries would call “normal”).

There have been many complaints as the operation continued, related to the lack of “strategy” on the part of Israel (for some reason — maybe lack of expectations? — fewer such complaints were aimed at Hamas). These complaints have come mostly in two forms: 1.) that Israel should not fight a war against Hamas without coupling its effort with a parallel effort at advancing the peace process with the PA; and 2.) that it is time for Israel to abandon its policy of non-negotiation with Hamas and acknowledge reality — Hamas is here to stay.

These two alternative policies are both worthy of discussion, as long as one realizes that they contradict one another. If Israel negotiates with Hamas, it undermines the PA, the only partner Israel might have for a peace process. If Israel advances peace negotiations with the PA, it is likely to draw even more opposition from Hamas. Nevertheless, some serious people believe that at least one of the two options should be vigorously pursued by Israel, and some even believe that Israel can attempt to try both in parallel. At the bottom of these alternative policy paths, though, lie two assumptions that Israel doesn’t seem to accept, and hence doesn’t seem inclined to follow: 1.) that there’s no problem without solution, and 2.) that action is always preferable to inaction.

If one accepts these two assumptions, it is reasonable to be puzzled, even dismayed by Israel’s lack of “strategy.” It is clear, and not just in regard to the 2012 Gaza operation, that Israel operates under the supposition that no solution is currently available for the problem of Gaza and Hamas, and that inaction — in the larger sense — is indeed preferable to action. Israel believes that Hamas is an enemy with whom no negotiation can lead to resolution, and that this is a component of the larger problem of a Palestinian society that isn’t yet ready for peace. When Palestinians are ready — when they are ready not just to negotiate with Israel, but also to confront the radical factions within their own society — that will be the right time for an attempt at a resolution that demands action. But until then, Israel defies both above-mentioned assumptions: It believes that there’s no present agreement that will put an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and that the lack of a possible agreement makes a tense but quiet status quo the only thing it can hope to achieve. 

Hence, an operation with no “strategy.” A war of low intensity, but also of low expectations. An operation aimed at restoring a status quo that is far from satisfying to both Palestinians and Israelis. An operation that outsiders perceive with a measure of dismay: All this violence just to go back to what we had two months ago? All this violence, and no attempt to leverage it to achieve larger goals? 

The answer, sadly, is a resounding yes. The dead, the injured, the terrified, the heart-wrenching scenes, the scared innocents, the crying children, the wasted days, the sleepless nights, the constant worry, the shattered windows, the wasted resources, the sad realization that there’s no end — all this with no purpose other than to restore the status quo. That is what Israel wants for now. And as for Hamas: As I warned at the outset of this article, we have a problem with Hamas, beginning with the fact that we don’t quite understand what they want.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor.

Iranian warplanes fired on U.S. drone over Gulf, Pentagon says


Iranian warplanes fired at an unarmed U.S. drone in international airspace last week but did not hit the aircraft, the Pentagon said on Thursday, disclosing details of an unprecedented incident that triggered a formal warning to Tehran through diplomatic channels.

The November 1 intercept was the first time Tehran had fired at an unmanned American aircraft, in a stark reminder of how tensions between the United States and Iran could escalate quickly into violence.

If Iran had hit the drone, as the Pentagon believes it was trying to do, it could have forced American retaliation – with the potential consequences that entails.

According to the timeline provided by the Pentagon, two Iranian SU-25 “Frogfoot” aircraft intercepted the American drone at about 4:50 a.m. EST as it conducted a routine, but classified, surveillance mission over Gulf waters about 16 nautical miles off the Iranian coast.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said the aircraft fired multiple rounds at the Predator drone and followed it for at least several miles as it moved farther away from Iranian airspace.

“We believe that they fired at least twice and made at least two passes,” he said.

International airspace begins after 12 nautical miles and Little said the drone at no point entered Iranian airspace. Last year, a crashed CIA drone was recovered inside Iran.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was quickly notified of the incident, as were members of Congress and the White House, Little added. The United States also sent Iran a warning through diplomatic channels, saying it would defend its military assets and would keep sending aircraft on such surveillance operations.

“There is absolutely no precedence for this,” Little said. “This is the first time that a (drone) has been fired upon to our knowledge by Iranian aircraft.”

Many questions about the incident remain, including why Iranian warplanes could not manage – if they wanted – to shoot down an unarmed drone, which lacks advanced capabilities to outmaneuver them.

Asked whether the Iranian aircraft were simply firing warning shots, Little said: “Our working assumption is that they fired to take it down. You'll have to ask the Iranians why they engaged in this action.”

There was no immediate comment by Iranian officials.

SANCTIONS TIGHTENED

President Barack Obama has resisted calls from inside the United States and Israel for military action against Iran, focusing instead on crushing rounds of sanctions, which were tightened again on Thursday.

The United States imposed sanctions on Iran's communications minister and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for jamming international satellite broadcasts to Iran and censoring and closing newspapers and detaining journalists.

The sanctions are part of broader efforts to isolate Tehran, which denies U.S. accusations that it seeks to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian atomic program.

In an effort to drive Iran to compromise, the United States and the European Union have gone for the jugular – Iran's oil exports – over the past year.

The United States and Israel, which regards a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence, have also hinted at the possibility of military strikes on Iran as a last resort.

Obama has said the United States will “do what we must” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and has repeatedly said that all options are on the table – code for the possibility of using force.

Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Peter Cooney

Cameron to London Jews: Not time for Israel to attack Iran


British Prime Minister David Cameron told members of London's Jewish community that Israel should give sanctions more time to work.

“I have said to Prime Minister Netanyahu that now is not the time for Israel to resort to military action,” Cameron said Monday night at the United Jewish Israel Appeal annual fundraising dinner in London.

But, Cameron told the crowd of  700 Jewish community leaders and supporters, “In the long term, if Iran makes the wrong choice, nothing is off the table. A nuclear-armed Iran is a threat to Israel. And a threat to the world.

“And this country will work unwaveringly to prevent that from happening,” the British leader pledged.

The European Union Foreign Affairs Council on Monday adopted new economic sanctions against Iran that hit its banking, shipping and industrial areas.

Last month, Netanyahu warned the United Nations General Assembly that Iran is close to acquiring enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb.

Cameron also praised Britain's ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, who traveled from Israel to attend the event, the London Jewish Chronicle reported.

“There is no contradiction between being a proud Jew, a committed Zionist and a loyal British citizen,” he said, reportedly responding to criticism that Gould has “dual loyalties,” according to the newspaper.

NY police ‘very cognizant’ of potential Iranian attack on city


The New York Police Department (NYPD) is monitoring the possibility of an Iranian attack on New York City due to the area’s large Jewish community, the New York Post reported.

“Obviously if there’s any action involving Israel and Iran we have to be very cognizant of the potential of retaliation here in New York City,” NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at the NYPD’s Shield anti-terrorism conference, according to the Post.

At the conference, NYPD Lt. Kevin Yorke noted that Iran’s nuclear program, and the global tension that it causes, is the source of “a number of very significant plots and attacks.”

Iran commander: If Israel attacks, ‘nothing will remain’


Iran’s top Revolutionary Guard commander warned that “nothing will remain” if Israel takes military action against Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities.

“Our response to Israel is clear: I think nothing will remain of Israel” should it attack Iran, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari said Sunday, providing more specifics than are typically included in Iranian threats, according to The Associated Press.

“Given Israel’s small land area and its vulnerability to a massive volume of Iran’s missiles, I don’t think any spot in Israel will remain safe,” he said.

Jafari also warned that Iran might close the Straits of Hormuz if it is attacked, withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and hit U.S. bases in the Middle East, AP reported.

“The U.S. military bases sprawled around Iran are considered a big vulnerability. Even the missile shields that they have set up, based on information we have, could only work for a few missiles, but when exposed to a massive volume of missiles the shields will lose their efficiency and will not work,” he said.

Jafari's comments come as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been calling for the United States to set “red lines” on Iran's nuclear program.

Former officials: Israeli or U.S. strike would only delay Iran’s nuclear plans, could backfire


A group of former U.S. security officials said an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities may delay Iran’s nuclear program by two to four years.

A U.S. air strike involving Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) stealth B-2 bombers dropping 30,000-pound precision-guided penetrating bombs “carried out to near perfection” could delay Iran’s program by up to four years, according to the report.

The report was released on Thursday by the “Iran Project,” a New York-based bipartisan group of former national-security officials and foreign-policy specialists, Bloomberg News reported.

A unilateral strike by Israel “with its more limited capabilities, could delay Iran’s ability to build a bomb by up to two years,” the report said.

An Israeli airstrike “is unlikely to succeed in destroying or even seriously damaging” the deeply buried Fordo enrichment facility and the stockpile of near-weapons-grade enriched uranium there, the report said.

Air raids, commando assaults and computer network attacks “would destroy or severely damage many of Iran’s physical facilities and stockpiles,” according to the report. But, the report asserted, “complete destruction” of Iran’s nuclear program is unlikely.

The report concluded that an attack would “damage the U.S. reputation and standing.”

“If Iran’s nuclear program is attacked by the U.S. or Israel in the absence of an international mandate or a multinational coalition, support for maintaining sanctions against Iran could be substantially weakened,” the report said.

Iran may retaliate by attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz, an action that would “rattle global markets and cause a significant spike in oil prices,” according to the report.

Former IDF commander: Iranian nuclear threat not imminent


Gabi Ashkenazi, the former Israeli military chief of staff, said that the threat to Israel from a nuclear Iran was not imminent.

Ashkenazi, who was chief of staff from 2007 until February 2011, was filmed saying at a recent lecture: “Anyone who thinks that there’ll be an Iranian nuclear weapon when we wake up tomorrow morning – well, we aren’t there yet.”

The footage, obtained by the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, was broadcast on Channel 2 News on Thursday. “This threat that emerges in the east, and all the darkening on that horizon – we aren’t there yet,” Ashkenazi was also filmed saying.

Israel should maintain a multi-pronged strategic approach — “a covert campaign” to thwart the Iranian nuclear drive; “diplomatic, political and economic sanctions; and a credible, realistic military threat,” he said. “We have to hope that this combination will keep Iran from going for the bomb.”

The comments marked Ashkenazi’s clearest expression to date of opposition to the imminent strike reportedly being contemplated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, has also advised against a strike. Amos Yadlin, a former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, recently wrote in the Washongton Post that Israel had no choice but to prepare for a a possible strike on Iran.

Yisrael Hayom, another Israeli daily, reported that Shelly Yachimovich, chairperson of the Israeli Labor Party, met this week in Paris with French President Francois Hollande in Paris. She reportedly asked him to tighten the European Union’s sanctions on Iran.

Israel strike on Iran would be disaster, Shaul Mofaz says


A former deputy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday a pre-emptive military strike against Iran over its nuclear program could embroil Israel in a “disastrous war”.

Shaul Mofaz, a parliamentary opposition leader who quit Netanyahu’s cabinet last month where he served as vice premier, said on Israeli television he thought Israel was “planning a hasty, irresponsible event”.

The former general and defense minister said he thought Israel could not do anything to force a strategic change in Iran’s nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Tehran says it is for peaceful purposes.

As a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet for two months, Mofaz was privy to deliberations on Iran’s nuclear program.

He told Channel 2 television in a studio interview that any Israeli military action “can at the most delay it (Iran’s program) by about a year, and it can bring upon us a disastrous war”.

Naming both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he said he was “very worried at what they are preparing”. He added: “I hope very much we don’t reach such a war because it would be a disaster.”

Days after he quit the cabinet late in July in a dispute about military conscription policy, Mofaz, who heads the centrist Kadima party, cautioned he would not back any Israeli military “adventures”.

His comments echoed those of other former Israeli security officials who have spoken against any unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with some saying such an assault could spur Tehran to speed up uranium enrichment.

Some officials have also voiced concern that any strike could prompt Iran’s proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, to launch rocket attacks on Israel.

Israel, widely believed to be the only atomic power in the Middle East, views Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, citing threats made by leaders of the Islamist nation to destroy the Jewish state.

There has been an upsurge in rhetoric from Israeli politicians this month suggesting Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities ahead of U.S. presidential elections in November.

Netanyahu is frustrated that Western diplomacy to try to force Iran to rein in its program has so far proved fruitless. Reported intelligence leaks that Tehran has been accelerating rather than scaling back its program have added to tensions.

However senior Israeli officials have said that a final decision about whether to attack Iran has not yet been taken, with ministers disagreeing over the issue and the military hierarchy unhappy about the prospect of going it alone without full U.S. backing.

Hezbollah says can kill tens of thousands of Israelis


The Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah said on Friday it could kill tens of thousands of Israelis by striking specific targets in Israel with what it described as precision-guided rockets.

“I tell the Israelis that you have a number of targets, not a large number … that can be hit with precision rockets … which we have,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a broadcast speech.

He said he would not name the targets and did not say whether the rockets were newly acquired weapons.

Nasrallah said his group could strike a limited number of targets in Israel which if hit would lead to mass casualties – a possible reference to Israeli nuclear facilities, though he said he did not spell out what he meant.

Israel, the only Middle East country outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons.

“Hitting these targets with a small number of rockets will turn … the lives of hundreds of thousands of Zionists to real hell, and we can talk about tens of thousands of dead,” said Nasrallah.

Nasrallah was speaking on the occasion of Jerusalem Day, marked each year on the last Friday of Ramadan in accordance with a tradition established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late supreme leader of Iran.

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

Michael Oren: Iran targeted Israeli Embassy


UPDATE (9:09 p.m.): On previous occasions, Israeli officials have suggested that Israel is considering a massive, crippling attack on Iran before it can move its nuclear facilities to safety deep underground. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren did not use that language in his interview with WTOP as represented in an earlier version of this article.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said Iran targeted his embassy.

Oren said last year’s alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Abel Al-Jubeir at a Washington restaurant also included plans to blow up the Israeli Embassy, WTOP radio in Washington reported Wednesday.

The complaint against Manssor Arbabsiar, who is charged with plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, also states that Arbabsiar “discussed the possibility of attacks on a number of targets. These targets included government facilities associated with Saudi Arabia and with ‘another’ country and these targets were located within the United States.”

Oren told WTOP Wednesday morning that Israel was that other country.

Netanyahu aides: In opposing Israeli attack on Iran, Peres forgot his place


President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly clashed over the possibility of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities on Thursday, with Netanyahu aides reportedly saying that Peres had “forgotten the role of a president in the State of Israel.”

Earlier Thursday, the president said in an interview to Channel 2 that Israel should not act alone against Iran’s nuclear program, and that he trusted U.S. President Barack Obama intends to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“It’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone. We can only delay [Iran’s progress]. Thus, it’s clear to us that we need to go together with America. There are questions of cooperation and of timetables, but as severe as the danger is, at least this time we’re not alone,” Peres said.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

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.

Israel ‘can only rely on itself,’ Netanyahu says after Sinai attack


Israel and Egypt have a common interest in keeping the border between them safe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday during a tour of the site of Sunday’s deadly attack in which Sinai-based gunmen killed at least 15 Egyptian police officers and injured at least seven.

Quoting Egyptian media sources, Israel Radio has since reported that the death toll had reached 17.

In the Sunday incident, the jihadist terrorists took control over an Egyptian checkpointand and commandeered two Egyptian armored vehicles with which they charged toward the border crossing with Israel. The vehicles were destroyed and the terrorists killed as they attempted to infiltrate the Israeli border.

The incident began around 8 p.m., when Israeli soldiers heard shooting coming from the Philadelphia Route, a narrow strip of land situated along the border between Gaza and Egypt. Five minutes later, Sinai terrorists took control of the Egyptian checkpoint, shot the soldiers and charged the commandeered vehicles toward the border, firing in all directions.

Around 8:10 p.m., one of the armored vehicles exploded at the border crossing, blowing a hole through the fence that allowed the other vehicle to cross into Israel. However, the second vehicle was quickly targeted from the air by waiting Israel Air Force aircraft, and was destroyed. Several terrorists were identified trying to flee from the burning vehicles, but they, too, were killed.

According to Israeli intelligence officials, the attack was orchestrated by a Salafi organization. Israeli intelligence services also had previous reports of an impending attack from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and were able to thwart the assault.

“We were prepared for it, so there was a hit,” IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said.

“I wish to express sorrow over the killing of the Egyptian soldiers,” Netanyahu said. “I think its clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in maintaining a peaceful border between them. However, when it comes to the security of Israeli citizens, it seems time and again that Israel must and can only rely on itself.”

Egyptian army helicopters, with the help of army rangers, have since been attempting to apprehend suspects in the attack, an Egyptian security source reported Monday. An Egyptian source, speaking to Ahram Online, said that early on Monday army units surrounded the city of Rafah, on the Egyptian side of the Egypt-Gaza border, to prevent suspects from escaping. A television journalist in the northern Sinai said the area had been sealed off by security forces, who blocked the road from the main town of Arish in the direction of the Gaza border crossing at Rafah. Egyptian state television reported that the Rafah border crossing would be sealed indefinitely.

The attack was the deadliest such event that Egypt’s tense Sinai border region has seen in decades. Earlier Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak urged the Egyptian authorities to “wake up” and take decisive action to prevent terror activity in the lawless Sinai Peninsula. Addressing a parliamentary committee, Barak also praised the work of Israeli forces in thwarting the attack, saying, “vigilant IDF troops foiled an attack that could have produced many casualties.”

Israel has repeatedly complained about poor security in Sinai following the overthrow of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, last year. For the past year there has been growing lawlessness in the vast desert expanse, as Bedouin bandits, jihadists and Palestinian terrorists from the adjoining Gaza Strip fill the vacuum, tearing at already frayed relations between Egypt and Israel.

Former Deputy IDF Chief of General Staff and former GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel told Army Radio that, “Egypt either does not want or does not have the power to stop Islamist terror in Sinai.”

Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counterterrorism Bureau, also told Army Radio on Monday that the attack constituted a definite escalation by terrorist organizations. “There is no doubt that the perpetrators who carried out this attack took a huge risk in involving Egyptian security personnel,” he said.

Egyptian security had reportedly ignored Israeli warnings of an impending attack. Last week, an Egyptian security source accused Israeli travel agencies of being behind Israeli authorities’ warnings to Israeli tourists in Sinai, urging them to leave.

“It has become common in Israel for travel agencies to spread these rumors to keep Israeli tourists inside Israel instead of going to Sinai, which causes losses for these agencies,” the source told the German news agency DPA.

The terrorists were armed with explosives belts, guns, bombs and other weapons, and were apparently planning a large demonstration of power, the initial investigation into the incident suggested.

“Considering the explosives that the terrorists brought in the small vehicle that exploded at the start, and the explosives belts fitted on six or eight terrorists inside that armored vehicle, there is no doubt that their entry into an Israeli town or a military base by surprise could have incurred extensive damage,” Barak said.

“This was an extremely successful joint operation of the IAF and Armored Corps. The speed of the cooperation between the various forces enabled us to thwart a terror attack within 15 minutes, according to the assessments. I would like to express my appreciation for the troops’ vigilance, specifically that of the intelligence personnel, and the determination of the soldiers operating in the field,” said IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.

Meanwhile, an initial investigation into the incident revealed that the second vehicle had penetrated a full 2 kilometers into Israeli territory before it was destroyed, and that military troops had pursued the vehicle at high speed, complete with gunfire, on a civilian road alongside civilian vehicles.

In Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi addressed his nation on television shortly after the attack, following an emergency meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo, and declared that the perpetrators of the attack would “pay a high price.”

“What happened [Sunday] is a criminal attack by our enemies upon our sons from the armed forces at a border point, the sons of whom were martyred at that place, while they were taking part in a fast-breaking Ramadan meal. These martyrs’ blood will not be shed in vain,” he said. “My deepest condolences go out to the families of these martyrs, and our condolences to the Egyptian people.”

The attack was an early diplomatic test for Morsi, an Islamist who assumed office at the end of June after staunch U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year in a popular uprising. The attack may also complicate Egypt’s relations with Hamas, the Islamist party that rules the Gaza Strip and is close to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, if it emerges that Palestinian gunmen were involved.

In a statement posted on the website of Gaza’s Hamas leaders, Hamas also condemned “the ugly crime committed today against the Egyptian soldiers, and sent its condolences to the families of the victims, to Egypt’s president and to his government.”

Israeli ex-intelligence chief hints at possibility of Iran attack in coming months


An Israeli ex-intelligence chief hinted at the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran in the coming months.

Speaking to the New York Times, Efraim Halevy, former chief of Israel’s Mossad, said that “If I were an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks.”

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met in Israel with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Times reported that some American officials believe that Israel may attack Iran this year.

Speaking in Israel on Wednesday, Panetta said that the United States is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“We have options that we are prepared to implement to ensure that that does not happen,” Panetta said, according to the Times. “My responsibility is to provide the president with a full range of options, including military options, should diplomacy fail.”

The Times reported that Netanyahu questioned the effectiveness of diplomatic efforts and sanctions aimed at persuading Iran to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons program.

“Right now the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program,” Netanyahu said, according to the Times. “This must change and it must change quickly because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out.”

Panetta: no Iran attack plans to be discussed with Israel


U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta denied media reports on Tuesday that he would discuss possible military attack plans against Iran during a brief visit to Israel.

Speaking at a press conference in Cairo shortly before departing for Israel, Panetta said he would be talking about “various contingencies”, but said specific military plans would not be put forward.

“I think it’s the wrong characterization to say we are going to be discussing potential attack plans. What we are discussing are various contingencies and how we would respond,” he said.

Asked whether these included military options, he said: “We obviously continue to work on a number of options in that area, but the discussions that I hope to have with Israel are going to be more about what is the threat that we’re confronting and to try to share both information and intelligence on that.”

Western powers believe Iran is seeking the technology to build a nuclear bomb and Israel has repeatedly hinted it might use force to try to halt its arch foe’s atomic program. Tehran says its nuclear work is for peaceful purposes.

The United States has said it is determined to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, but has called on Israel to give more time for increasingly severe economic sanctions to work.

“Both of our countries are committed to ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to that extent we continue to work together in the effort to ensure that Iran does not reach that point of developing a nuclear weapon,” Panetta said.

Top selling Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth said on Tuesday that Panetta intended to show Israeli leaders the plans being drawn up by the Pentagon to stop Iran if diplomacy and sanctions failed to persuade Tehran to halt its nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had not yet decided whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, dismissing repeated media reports that the military objected to such an operation against far-flung, fortified Iranian sites.

“In Israeli democracy, as in any democracy, the political echelon is the one that decides and the professional echelon (the military) executes. I have not yet made a decision,” he told Israel’s Channel Two news on Tuesday evening.

He added that the debate in the media about a possible offensive was “harmful” and “not serious”.

The Israeli army chief, Benny Gantz, told reporters in Tel Aviv earlier in the day that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were ready to attack Iran if ordered to.

“The IDF is ready and prepared for action and as we see it ‘all options are on the table’ is not a slogan, it is a working plan and we are doing it,” he said, referring to a line often repeated by Israeli politicians when discussing Iran.

Panetta is due to meet his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, and Netanyahu during his stay in Israel, part of a broader trip to the Middle East and Africa.

A senior Israeli official on Sunday denied a separate newspaper report that President Barack Obama’s national security adviser had briefed Netanyahu on a U.S. contingency plan to attack Iran should diplomacy fail to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo

Barak: Strike would be less costly than nuclear Iran


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that a preemptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be less costly for Israel than Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon.

In an address Wednesday to the Israeli army’s National Security College, Barak said the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran “would be many times more complex, dangerous and costly, both in terms of human life and in terms of resources, than a preemptive strike.”

Also speaking at the National Security Council, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel is “committed to doing everything it possibly can in order to stop Iran from going nuclear,” according to the Times of Israel.

The statements come as the U.S. Congress is readying to approve a package of sanctions on Iran that are aimed at further mitigating Iranian oil revenues, according to The Jerusalem Post. The sanctions would cut down on electronic fund transfers from Iranian banks and also reduce transactions with Iranian national oil and tanker companies.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, called the sanctions a “critical tool to help stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program” that would ensure “the security of our ally, the State of Israel.”

Bus blast in Bulgaria kills 7, injures more than 30 — Israel blames Iran


At least seven Israeli tourists were killed on Wednesday in an explosion on a bus outside a Bulgarian airport that Israel blamed on Tehran, promising a strong response to “Iranian terror.”

The explosion comes on the 18th anniversary of a 1994 bomb attack on the headquarters of Argentina’s main Jewish organization by an Iranian-backed Hezbollah suicide bomber, which killed 85 people.

The windows of the double-decker bus were blown out and surrounded by scorch marks. Mangled metal hung from its torn-back roof and clouds of dense black smoke billowed above the airport.

The mayor of Burgas, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, said the bus was carrying Israeli tourists, but police could not immediately confirm their nationality. Several other buses at the site were damaged.

“I do not know what it was, but it was a very powerful blast, and I think it was something placed on purpose in the bus, which carried 47 Israeli tourists,” Burgas mayor Dimitar Nikolov told BTV television, adding 33 people were injured.

An Israeli witness told Israeli army radio that the explosion was probably caused by a suicide bomber at the entrance of the bus.

Bulgaria raised security at all airports, bus and railway stations after the explosion, which happened in a parking lot outside the airport. Stunned travelers hugged one another in shock at the carnage and passengers were kept away from the scene with a police cordon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran for the Wednesday’s blast and said Israel would respond.

“All the signs lead to Iran. Only in the past few months we have seen Iranian attempts to attack Israelis in Thailand, India, Georgia, Kenya, Cyprus and other places,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

“Eighteen years exactly after the blast at the Jewish community centre in Argentina, murderous Iranian terror continues to hit innocent people. This is an Iranian terror attack that is spreading throughout the entire world. Israel will react powerfully against Iranian terror,” he said.

The incident was not reported by Iranian media and there was no immediate Iranian reaction to the Israeli accusation.

VULNERABLE

Israeli officials had previously said that Bulgaria, a popular holiday destination for Israeli tourists, was vulnerable to attack by Islamist militants who could infiltrate via nearby Turkey.

Burgas is Bulgaria’s fourth largest city and lies on the Black Sea coast some 40 miles from the border with Turkey. It is at the center of a string of seaside resorts which are popular for their sunshine and low cost compared with many parts of the Mediterranean.

With a population of about 200,000, it is also an important industrial centre and has Bulgaria’s sole oil refinery.

Burgas has become an increasingly popular destination for Israelis in the past couple of years due to Israel’s worsening relationship with Turkey, according to Israeli travel agent Adi Amram, who is based in Ramat Gan, in Israel. Since the deadly flotilla incident of 2010 – during which nine passengers were killed in a raid by Israeli commandos when they boarded the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza – Israelis have increasingly been vacationing in Burgas instead of Turkey, said Amram, who works for Sphera Tours, a travel agency based in Ramat Gan and Los Angeles.

“It’s actually very political, because Israelis didn’t want to go to Turkey after what happened with the Marmara, so they’re trying to find some other location, some other resort country.” Until today’s tragedy, he said, “Burgas actually became what was Turkey for Israelis about two years ago,” with its nice hotels, water sports, pubs, shopping and cafes, Amram said.

Israeli diplomats have been targeted in several countries in recent months by bombers who Israel said struck on behalf of Iran.

Though Tehran has denied involvement, some analysts believe it is trying to avenge the assassinations of several scientists from its controversial nuclear program, which the Iranians have blamed on Israel and its Western allies.

Israel has threatened air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomatic efforts fail to stop Tehran getting nuclear weapons, which it denies it is seeking.

Washington was still trying to make sure of the facts, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

“I don’t have information yet on anything specific to the incident itself, if in fact it was terrorism and who was responsible for it,” Carney said.

Burgas airport was closed after the incident and flights were redirected to the airport of Varna, police said. Dozens of tourists were stranded at the airport as it was checked for other explosive devices, Focus news agency reported.

El Al cancelled its flight from Tel Aviv to Sofia that was due to leave at 1600 GMT and consequently the turnaround flight, a spokeswoman told Reuters. Nothing has been decided about Thursday’s flights.

Israeli rescue services were planning to send a plane to Burgas with medical staff to treat the injured and take bodies home, the Israeli ambulance service Magen David Adom said.

Additional reporting by Ryan Torok in Los Angeles, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Sam Cage; Editing by Alison Williams

Flame virus can sabotage computers, attack Iran, expert says


The powerful Flame computer virus is not only capable of espionage but it can also sabotage computer systems and likely was used to attack Iran in April, according to a leading security company, Symantec Corp.

Iran had previously blamed Flame for causing data loss on computers in the country’s main oil export terminal and Oil Ministry. But prior to Symantec’s discovery, cyber experts had only unearthed evidence that proved Flame could spy on conversations on the computers it infects and steal data.

Symantec researcher Vikram Thakur said on Thursday that the company has now identified a component of Flame that allows operators to delete files from computers, which means it can cause critical programs to fail or completely disable operating systems.

“These guys have the capability to delete everything on the computer,” Thakur said. “This is not something that is theoretical. It is absolutely there.”

Flame was deployed at least five years ago and is the most sophisticated cyber spying program ever discovered. Researchers have been racing to better understand its capabilities ever since Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab uncovered Flame last month after the security firm was asked by a United Nations agency to look for a virus that Iran said had sabotaged its computers, deleting valuable data.

Last week, researchers at Kaspersky Lab linked some of the software code in Flame to the Stuxnet cyber weapon, which was widely believed to have been used by the United States and Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear program. Symantec later also said Stuxnet and Flame shared some code.

Current and former U.S. and Western national security officials told Reuters this week that the United States played a role in creating Flame. The Washington Post reported that U.S. and Israel jointly developed Flame and used it to collect intelligence to help slow Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran complained about the threat of cyber attacks again on Thursday, saying it had detected plans by the United States, Israel and Britain to launch a “massive” strike after the breakdown of talks over Tehran’s nuclear activities. . It was not clear if the cyber attack referred to Flame, or a new virus.

Symantec declined to comment on who the firm believes is behind Flame.

INFRASTRUCTURE AT RISK

If Symantec’s conclusions are validated, that means Flame could be used as a weapon to attack computers that run critical infrastructure systems, including dams, chemical plants and manufacturing facilities, security specialists said.

Boldizsár Bencsath, an expert on cyber warfare with Hungary’s Laboratory of Cryptography and System Security, said there was at least a 70 percent chance that Flame was used to attack Iran in April.

“Of course it can be used for sabotage,” said Bencsath, who began investigating Flame several weeks before it was first reported to the public. “It may have been used to attack critical infrastructure and it may be used in the future.”

Sean McGurk, a former Department of Homeland Security official who helped direct the U.S. effort to protect critical infrastructure from cyber attacks, said that Flame was not the first piece of malicious software designed to sabotage systems by deleting data.

What makes it unique, he said, is that the data-wiping module works alongside a suite of other programs including the espionage tools that have previously been identified.

“It could render computing devices useless,” said McGurk, who is now chief executive of a consulting firm known as NExt Generation Micro LLC.

That presents a threat, he said, because computers are used in all sorts of industrial control systems, affecting everything from critical processes at manufacturing plants to the pressure inside water networks. “Cyber elements can have catastrophic impacts,” he said.

Neil Fisher, vice president for global security solutions at Unisys, said Symantec’s findings – if verified – mean that Flame could be “highly dangerous.”

“Many of our utilities have connected their operational management to the Internet to save costs,” he said.

“Water, gas, electricity certainly constitute the critical national infrastructure,” he added. “Dysfunction of those … systems could have uncomfortable consequences for a large number of people.”

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

Shaul Mofaz: U.S. should take lead on Iran strike, as last resort


The United States and the West should take the lead in launching a military strike against Iran, and only as a matter of last resort, said Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s deputy prime minister.

“The use of military power should be the last option, and I believe that this option should be led by the U.S. and the Western countries,” Mofaz, whose joining of his Kadima party to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government last month created a wall-to-wall national unity government, said Tuesday at the outset of a visit to Washington.

“The principle questions we should use before using force—we should ask ourselves how much will we delay the Iranian program, how many months, how many years, and what will happen the day after in the region, I mean the Middle East,” he said.

Mofaz also said that he believed that the Iranians were buying time in talks on its suspected nuclear weapons program with major powers, but his caution and his explicit deferral to the United States as the lead military actor underscore the significance of his joining the government: Until now, Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, have hinted that Israel could strike first, and that that time may come as soon as the Fall.

Mofaz, speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also repeated his call for an interim agreement with the Palestinians on borders and security arrangements as a means of accelerating peace talks, saying that the terms of such an agreement were close, and would spur the sides to solve the more contentious issues, Jerusalem and refugees among them.

He said that the need for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a failure to resolve it would soon pose a greater danger to Israel than Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Mofaz, a former military chief of staff and defense minister, also said Israel and Turkey should differences sparked by Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2009. He predicted a meeting of Turkish and Israeli leaders within months.

“I believe that it is necessary for the strategic goals of Israel and for the strategic goals of Turkey,” he said.

That posture also suggested a difference with Netanyahu, who until now has blamed the break with Turkey on the policies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and has rejected efforts to end the impasse.

Mofaz has meetings this week with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state, and other top administration officials.

Flame computer bug may have been released by Israel, minister says


A computer virus attacking computers in Iran and the West Bank may have been created with Israeli involvement, a government minister hinted.

Israeli vice prime minister Moshe Ya’alon said in an interview Tuesday on Israel Radio that “Anyone who sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat would be likely to take various steps, including these, to harm it.”

“Israel was blessed as being a country rich with high-tech, these tools that we take pride in open up all kinds of opportunities for us,” Ya’alon also said.

The discovery of the Flame virus was announced Monday by the Kaspersky Lab in Russia. It was discovered in high concentrations in Iranian computers and also in the West Bank, Syria and Sudan.

The virus was created to collect data, and may have lain dormant for several years and is controlled by a remote computer, which can turn it on and off at will. It is being called “the most sophisticated virus of all times,”

It reportedly shares some characteristics with the Stuxnet virus, which damaged Iranian nuclear centrifuges before it was discovered in 2010.

Experts believe that it took a sophisticated programming team and state resources to create the program.

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

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