Israel says Iran has material for four A-bombs


Israel estimated on Thursday that Iran could make four atomic bombs by further enriching uranium it has already stockpiled, and could produce its first within a year of deciding to build one.

But in his rare public remarks, Major-General Aviv Kochavi, chief of military intelligence, held out the possibility stronger international sanctions might dissuade Tehran from pursuing a policy he had no doubt was aimed at developing nuclear weapons, despite Iranian denials.

Citing figures similar to those from the U.N. nuclear agency, Kochavi told Israel’s annual Herzliya Conference on strategic affairs: “Iran has accumulated more than 4 tonnes of uranium enriched to a level of 3.5 percent and nearly 100 kilos at an enrichment level of 20 percent.

“This amount of material is already enough for four atomic bombs.”

Nuclear bombs require uranium enriched to 90 percent, but Western experts say much of the effort required to get there is already achieved once it reaches 20-percent purity, shortening the time needed for any nuclear weapons “break-out.”

One former U.N. inspector said last month Iran could have enough 20-percent uranium for one bomb – about 250 kg of the material – in about a year from now.

Tehran says it will use 20 percent-enriched uranium to convert into fuel for a research reactor making isotopes to treat cancer patients. Western officials say they doubt that the country has the technical capability to do that.

Referring to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in whose country’s hands Israel believe a nuclear weapon would threaten the survival of the Jewish state, Kochavi said:

“From the moment Khamenei gives an order … to speed up production of the first nuclear explosive device, we estimate it will take about a year to complete the task.”

Arming a missile with a nuclear warhead, he added, could take a year or two longer.

Western experts’ estimates of how quickly Iran could assemble a nuclear weapon if it decides to do so range from as little as six months to a year or more. Some believe Iran hopes to develop nuclear technology but stop short of building weapons, a move from which it is barred by treaty commitments.

In a report in November, the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had almost 5 tonnes of low-enriched uranium and, citing data from September, 73.7 kg of uranium with a purity of 20 percent.

“Iran continues to contend that its program is for peaceful and civilian purposes,” Kochavi said.

“But a long series of solid, strong data in our hands prove beyond any doubt that Iran is continuing to engage in developing nuclear weapons,” he said in the speech, in which he steered clear of discussing Israel’s military options.

Israel, widely believed to possess the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, has said it would use force if necessary to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

It has made little comment on Iranian accusations that its agents, along with those of its Western allies, are behind assassinations and explosions that appear to form part of a covert war to sabotage Iran’s nuclear development capacity.

In separate remarks in Tel Aviv, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said “we are in a period of diplomacy and sanctions” in trying to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“It is clear to all that there is no need to take any option off the table, that there needs to be intensive and urgent diplomacy and that sanctions on Iran need to include not only on oil but on the financial system and the central bank,” Barak told reporters.

Washington and the European Union have imposed tighter sanctions in recent weeks on both Iran’s oil exports and on international financial transactions with Tehran.

Kochavi said the current sanctions have not led to a change in Iranian strategy, but could still have an effect.

“But the stronger the (pressure), the greater the potential for the regime – which is worried first and foremost about its survival – to reconsider,” he said.

Tension between Iran and the West over Iran’s nuclear work has increased since November, when the IAEA published a report that said Tehran appeared to have worked on designing a nuclear weapon.

Iran says its nuclear energy program is peaceful and aimed at generating electricity and other civilian uses.

Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Ehud Barak plays down talk of war with Iran


Defense Minister Ehud Barak played down Tuesday speculation that Israel intends to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, saying no decision had been made on embarking on a military operation.

“War is not a picnic. We want a picnic. We don’t want a war,” Barak told Israel Radio before the release this week of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear activity.

“(Israel) has not yet decided to embark on any operation,” he said, dismissing as “delusional” Israeli media speculation that he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had chosen that course.

But he said Israel had to prepare for “uncomfortable situations” and ultimately bore responsibility for its own security.

All options to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions should remain open, Barak said, repeating the official line taken by Israel, which has termed a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to its existence.

Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, something it has never confirmed or denied under a policy of strategic ambiguity to keep Arab and Iranian adversaries at bay.

Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s defense minister, cautioned against any military strike on its atomic facilities. “We are fully prepared for a firm response to such foolish measures by our enemies,” Vahidi was quoted as saying by Iran’s student news agency.

Western diplomats said the report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog is expected to show recent activity in Iran that could be put to developing nuclear bombs, including intelligence about computer modeling of such weapons.

Iran says its uranium enrichment program is aimed at generating electricity only.

“I estimate that it will be quite a harsh report … it does not surprise Israel, we have been dealing with these issues for years,” Barak said.

He voiced doubt, however, that the U.N. Security Council, where Tehran’s traditional sympathizers China and Russia have veto power, would respond to the IAEA’s findings by imposing tough new sanctions following four previous rounds of measures.

“We are probably at the last opportunity for coordinated, international, lethal sanctions that will force Iran to stop,” Barak said, calling for steps to halt imports of Iranian oil and exports of refined petroleum to the Islamist Republic.

Such steps, he said, “will need the cooperation of the United States, Europe, India, China and Russia—and I don’t think that it will be possible to form such a coalition.”

Moscow has called for a step-by-step process under which the existing sanctions would be eased in return for actions by Iran to dispel concerns over its nuclear program.

At a news conference in Berlin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said “militarist statements to the effect that Israel or other countries use force against Iran or any other country in the Middle East” represented “very dangerous rhetoric.”

Speculation in Israel about an imminent attack on Iran was fueled last week by the Jewish state’s test-launching of a long-range missile and comments by Netanyahu that Tehran’s nuclear program posed a “direct and heavy threat.”

Pressed in the radio interview about a military option, Barak said he was aware of fears among many Israelis that a strike against Iran could draw catastrophic retaliatory missile attacks by Tehran and its Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah allies.

“There is no way to prevent some damage. It will not be pleasant,” Barak said. “There is no scenario for 50,000 dead, or 5,000 killed—and if everyone stays in their homes, maybe not even 500 dead.”

Israel held a wide-scale civil defense exercise last week, a drill that Israeli officials said was routine and scheduled months ago.

Interviews by Reuters with government and military officials, as well as independent experts, suggest that Israel prefers caution over a unilateral strike against the Iranians.

Iran has repeatedly said it would respond to any attack by striking U.S. interests in the Middle East and could close the Gulf to oil traffic, causing massive disruption to global crude supplies.

Many countries like Russia and U.S. allies Germany and France have opposed any strike against the Islamic Republic, saying it could cause “irreparable damages,” suggesting that the dispute should be resolved through diplomatic means.

The United States says it remains focused on using diplomatic and economic levers to pressure Iran.

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna and Tehran and Berlin bureaux; Editing by Mark Heinrich