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.”

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

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


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

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

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

Story continues after the jump.

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

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

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

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

Barak: Iran could seek short build time for bomb


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editing by Crispian Balmer and Angus MacSwan

Israel’s top general says Iran unlikely to make bomb


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Israel test-fires ballistic missile: Israel Radio


Israel test-fired a ballistic missile on Wednesday, Israel Radio said, amid a heightened public debate over the possibility of an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear program.

“Israel today carried out the test-firing of a rocket propulsion system from the Palmachim base (in central Israel),” a Defense Ministry statement said.

“This had been planned by the defense establishment a long time ago and has been carried out as scheduled.”

A Defense Ministry official declined to comment on the type of rocket tested. But Israel Radio’s military affairs correspondent, who is regularly briefed by top officers on defense matters, said a ballistic missile was launched.

Israel, considered to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, successfully test-fired a two-stage, long-range ballistic missile in 2008.

It is widely believed to have Jericho missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, civilian “Shavit” rockets used to launch satellites and the Arrow missile interceptor.

The launch coincided with mounting speculation in Israel that its leaders could be preparing a military attack on Iran to curb a nuclear program they say is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear activities are peaceful.

The public debate was sparked at the weekend when a newspaper commentator suggested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak may have decided, without seeking wider cabinet approval, to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

In a policy speech opening parliament’s winter session on Monday, Netanyahu again voiced his view that a nuclear Iran would pose a serious threat to Israel and to the world.

But he stopped short of making any direct threat of Israeli military action. Israel has said repeatedly that all options are on the table in trying to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Andrew Roche

Netanyahu: Israel will react firmly to recent Palestinian violence [VIDEO]


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel will react firmly, responsibly and wisely to a recent wave of Palestinian violence.

“The government, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Israeli public has an iron will to defend the country and its citizens,” Netanyahu said before boarding a flight to Russia.

“Israel will act firmly, responsibly and wisely to preserve the quiet and security that prevailed here over the past two years,” he assured.

Netanyahu issued his statement just hours after a bomb killed a 59-year-old woman at a crowded bus stop in Jerusalem. Earlier Wednesday, southern Israel was bombarded by Palestinian rockets and mortar fire.

Read more at Haaretz.com.