David Suissa: On bombing Iran


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think they call that human nature.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NO BREAKOUT WITH JUST ONE BOMB?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMERICAN PRESSURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel hasn’t decided on Iran strike, Pentagon says


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White House agrees with Netanyahu on sanctions, calls for patience


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khamenei dismisses sanctions, says Iran stronger than ever


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reporting by Marcus George; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran says test-fires missiles over threats of attack


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OIL MARKETS ON EDGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IRANIAN CALL TO SHUT OIL LANES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel says clock ticking after Iran talks fail


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEMANDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Michael Roddy

Satellite images show crews hiding evidence at Iran nuclear site


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel wary of expected Iran nuclear deal


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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


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

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

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

Read more at Haaretz.com.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Story continues after the jump.

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

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

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

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

Barak: Iran could seek short build time for bomb


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editing by Crispian Balmer and Angus MacSwan

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel’s top general says Iran unlikely to make bomb


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran, world powers set for high-stakes nuclear talks


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashton’s spokesman Michael Mann said in an email.

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

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

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

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

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

Could bombing Iran push it to build the bomb?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TALKS MAY OFFER “BREATHING SPACE”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NUCLEAR DETERRENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Mark Heinrich

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


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

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

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

Read more at Haaretz.com.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran’s nuclear ambitions


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran for attacks on Israeli embassy staff in Georgia and India on Monday Feb. 13 that wounded at least two people. “Iran is behind these attacks. It is the biggest exporter of terror in the world,” Netanyahu told members of his Likud party. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland seemed much on the same wavelength two days later.

The Iranian regime has not to blame others for finger pointing it. In fact, since some time the most senior authorities in Iran have been threatening to retaliate against presumed Israeli covert operations targeting nuclear scientists in Iran.

Following the assassination in Iran on Jan. 11 of Mostapha Ahmadi Roshan, vice-president of Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility, the country’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei blamed the “international terror network led by the CIA and the Mossad”, threatening that “we would never refrain from punishing the culprits and those behind them.” 

Iran’s Intelligence Minister warned that “the British, the Americans and the Mossad would taste the firm and heavy response of the Islamic Republic.”

General Massoud Jazaeri, second in command of the Armed forces of the regime stressed that “capabilities stemming from the Islamic Revolution’s strategic depth – a term normally used for proxies in the Near East, notably the Hizballah – were being considered.”

Subsequently a Lebanese man arrested in Thailand and suspected of having relations with the Hizballah led the Thai police to a hideout containing bomb making facilities. An Iranian injured in an explosion in Bangkok on February 14 was detained by the police for further inquiries. 

So Iran’s being behind the Monday embassy explosions is only logical conclusion. Retaliating against the assassination of nuclear scientists is however a mere pretext, rhetoric fit for internal use: the true issue is Iran’s covert nuclear. So regardless of who is really behind the assassination attempts, the clerics’ rhetoric is a political one first and foremost.

Two issues are at stakes: the nuclear impasse, and the internal dissent.

Engulfed in a deep internal crisis, the clerics see no way out except what they call a “life insurance” in the form of military nuclear might. At the same time, they have to keep opposition under control.

On the first issue, terrorist acts against Israeli embassies and other similar attempts are meant to send a “strong” message to the West. Not being able to step back from a strategic agenda for survival, the regime resorts to terrorism as “a legitimate foreign policy tool,” in terms used by Victoria Nuland.

The obvious message is: “Yes we can.” In other words, “do not underestimate our capability of nuisance, especially in an election year in the United States.” Iran’s ruling clique believes that the West might back off with a much feared wave of destabilizing terrorist acts in sight.

But the second issue, internal opposition, is also a source of concern. That is why the clerics try to make the most out of the assassinated scientists’ affair. In an interview with the NBC, Ali Larijani, advisor to the supreme leader, alleged that the main opposition, the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) cooperated with the Mossad to assassinate the Iranian scientists. A shear lie meant only to send another hurried message to the US State Department, which under recommendations by the Appeal’s Court of DC is studying the removal of the MEK from its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), an act considered a redline by the regime in power as it would send an encouraging message to a hostile population waiting for their turn at the regime.

Iran’s leaders resort to terror because the tool has proven its effectiveness in the past. An explosion perpetrated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon in 1983 that killed 241 US marines and 58 French paratroopers prompted the withdrawal of the International Peace Force from the country. A wave of bloody street bombings in Paris in 1986 and French nationals taken hostage by proxies in Lebanon made the French government muzzle Iranian dissidents and leave the Lebanese territory open to Iranian influence.

As of the FTO list, Hillary Clinton has been sitting on the decision to de-list the Iranian opposition since about two years, in spite of Justice’s recommendation, for the obviously political reason of not wanting to antagonize Iran.

So it is a logical conclusion for the clerics that terror pays. The best way to correct their impression is to stick to a principled approach:

Regardless of reasons, terrorist acts should be punished with extreme firmness. A few months ago the highest officials in the US affirmed that an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US had been defused, but no action was taken. Leaving terrorist acts unpunished for political considerations is a fatal negligence of principles.

On the Iranian opposition, whatever the nature of their struggle against the regime, the court has cleared them of terrorism. Keeping them on the FTO list is yet another negligence of principles. That is playing into the clerics hands.

Principles apart, from a political point of view there is no sense in kowtowing to a regime on the brink of internal chaos and unable to hold falling pieces together. It is losing a strategic ally in the region, the Syrian regime, and the increasing pressure of international sanctions is beyond the endurance limit of a population opposed to the regime it considers responsible for all the misery. Sources from inside Iranian ruling circles point to a state of extreme stress around the supreme leader, even from close aides, in dealing with crushing effects of recent sanctions adopted against the country because of its unlawful behavior in dealing with the nuclear issue.

So harsh words and saber rattling should deceive nobody.

Iran boasts nuclear advances, deepening standoff


Iran proclaimed advances in nuclear know-how on Wednesday, including new centrifuges able to enrich uranium much faster, a move that may hasten a drift towards confrontation with the West over suspicions it is seeking the means to make atomic bombs.

Tehran’s resolve to pursue a nuclear program showed no sign of wavering despite Western sanctions inflicting increasing damage on its oil-based economy.

“The era of bullying nations has passed. The arrogant powers cannot monopolize nuclear technology. They tried to prevent us by issuing sanctions and resolutions but failed,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a live television broadcast.

“Our nuclear path will continue.”

However, Iran’s Arabic-language Al Alam television said the government had handed a letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton expressing readiness to “hold new talks over its nuclear program in a constructive way.”

An Ashton spokeswoman confirmed receipt of the letter, saying she was evaluating it and would consult with the United States, Russia, China and other partners among the big powers.

Iran has long refused to negotiate curbs on its nuclear program, saying it is intended to produce electricity for booming domestic demand and for other civilian uses.

The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail.

Washington however played down Iran’s latest announcement, saying its reported advances were “not terribly new and not terribly impressive.”

“We frankly don’t see a lot new here. This is not big news. In fact it seems to have been hyped,” a State Department spokeswoman said.

IRAN DENIES BANNING OIL EXPORTS TO EU

Iran’s Oil Ministry denied a state media report that it had cut off oil exports to six European Union states.

“We deny this report … If such a decision is made, it will be announced by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council,” a spokesman for the ministry told Reuters.

Iran’s English language Press TV said Tehran had halted oil deliveries to France, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Netherlands and Spain—its biggest EU customers—in retaliation for an EU ban on Iranian crude due to take effect in July.

The Islamic Republic is the world’s No. 5 oil exporter, with 2.6 million barrels going abroad daily, and the EU consumes around a fifth of those volumes.

With Western sanctions now spreading to block Iran’s oil exports and central bank financing of trade, Tehran has been resorting to barter to import staples like rice, cooking oil and tea, commodities traders say.

The most recent talks between world powers and Iran failed in January 2011 because of Tehran’s unwillingness to discuss transparent limits on enrichment, as demanded by several U.N. Security Council resolutions passed since 2006.

NEW GENERATION OF CENTRIFUGE

The nuclear achievements proclaimed by Tehran involved a new line of uranium enrichment centrifuge and the loading of its first domestically produced batch of fuel into a research reactor that is expected to soon run out of imported stocks.

Tehran has for some years been developing and testing new generations of centrifuges to replace its outdated, erratic “P-1” model. In January it said it had successfully manufactured and tested its own fuel rods for use in nuclear power plants.

Ahmadinejad said the “fourth generation” of centrifuge would be able to refine uranium three times as fast as previously.

If Iran eventually succeeded in introducing modern centrifuges for production, it could significantly shorten the time needed to stockpile enriched uranium, which can generate electricity or, if refined much more, nuclear explosions.

Last year, Iran installed two newer models for large scale testing at a research site near the central town of Natanz.

But it remains unclear whether Tehran, under increasingly strict trade sanctions, has the means and components to make the more sophisticated machines in industrial quantity.

“We have seen this before. We have seen these announcements and these grand unveilings and it turns out that there was less there than meets the eye. I suspect this is the same case,” said Shannon Kile at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

However, Ahmadinejad said Iran had significantly increased the number of centrifuges at its main enrichment site at Natanz, saying there were now 9,000 such machines installed there.

In its last report on Iran, in November, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said there were 8,000 installed centrifuges at Natanz, of which up to 6,200 were operating.

MAJOR THREAT, FRANCE SAYS

France said Tehran’s latest moves again demonstrated that it would rather ignore international obligations than cooperate.

A British Foreign Office spokesman said: “(This) does not give any confidence that Iran is ready to engage meaningfully on the international community’s well-founded concerns about its nuclear program. Until it does so we’ll only increase peaceful and legitimate pressure on Iran to return to negotiations.”

Russia said global powers must work harder to coax concessions from Iran, warning that Tehran’s willingness to compromise was waning as it makes progress toward the potential capability of building nuclear warheads.

Making a case for a renewed dialogue, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said U.N. sanctions and additional measures introduced by Western nations had had “zero” effect on its nuclear program.

Iran has threatened retaliation for any attack or effective ban on its oil exports, suggesting it could seal off the main Gulf export shipping channel, the Strait of Hormuz, used by a third of the world’s crude oil tankers.

NEW FUEL FOR RESEARCH REACTOR

State television aired live footage of Ahmadinejad loading Iranian-made fuel rods into the Tehran Research Reactor and called this “a sign of Iranian scientists’ achievements.”

The Tehran reactor produces radio isotopes for medical use and agriculture. Iran says it was forced to manufacture its own fuel for the Tehran reactor after failing to agree terms for a deal to obtain it from the West.

In 2010, Iran alarmed the West by starting to enrich uranium to a fissile purity of 20 percent for the stated purpose of reprocessing into special fuel for the Tehran reactor.

In boosting enrichment up from the 3.5 percent level suitable for powering civilian nuclear plants, Iran moved significantly closer to the 90 percent threshold suitable for the fissile core of a nuclear warhead.

Analysts remained doubtful that Iran would be able to operate the research reactor with its own special fuel.

“As usual, the announcement surely is exaggerated. Producing the fuel plates … is not so hard. But the plates have to be tested for a considerable period before they can be used safely in the reactor,” said Mark Fitzpatrick of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“If Iran is really running the reactor with untested fuel plates, then my advice to the residents surrounding the building would be to move somewhere else. It will be unsafe.”

Spent fuel can be reprocessed into plutonium, the alternative key ingredient in atomic bombs. But Western worries about Iran’s nuclear program have focused on its enrichment program, which has accumulated enough material for up to several bombs, in the view of nuclear proliferation experts.

Analysts say the fuel rod development itself will not put Iran any closer to producing nuclear weapons, but could be a way of telling Tehran’s adversaries that time is running out if they want to find a negotiated solution to the dispute.

Iran appears to have overcome one serious recent obstacle to nuclear development by succeeding in neutralizing and purging the “Stuxnet” computer virus from its nuclear machinery, European and U.S. officials and private experts told Reuters. Many believe Israeli operators planted the virus.

Additional reporting by Mitra Amiri, Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, John Irish in Paris, Dmitry Zhdannikov and Adrian Croft in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Napolitano to Jewish leaders: No imminent threat of attack


Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and top U.S. security officials told Jewish community leaders there is no imminent threat of an attack on Jewish targets in the United States.

“Officials on the call said government and security agencies are closely monitoring intelligence information amid rising Mideast tensions, but confirmed that there are no immediate threats directed at a specific target in the U.S. at this time,” said a statement by the Jewish Federations of North America, which co-hosted the call with DHS and the Secure Community Network, the group that partners with JFNA to consult with Jewish communities on security.

Napolitano and top officials of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the White House spoke for an hour and “stressed that there is currently no indication of any such threat, and urged the Jewish community to continue to engage in normal activity,” the JFNA release said.

A senior Homeland Security official said that Napolitano had been concerned by the level of worry in the Jewish community arising from a number of aborted attempts overseas to target Jewish institutions, as well as recent arson attacks on synagogues in northern New Jersey.

“What she was hoping to achieve was to reduce the level of anxiety,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Noting the “diverse” array of possible threats against Jewish targets, both domestic and foreign, the official said that “none of these may be connected, but when looked at in totality, that is the source of the major concern in the Jewish community.”

Authorities, the official said, were “monitoring intelligence channels and working on a federal level and with state and local law enforcement to follow up on any security issue, foreign or domestic.” Events related to recent heightened tensions between Israel and Iran also were being scrutinized, the official said.

Officials on the call, which drew more than 200 listeners through the JFNA and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, stressed awareness programs, including the joint SCN-DHS “If you see it, say it” publicity program urging awareness of suspicious articles and behavior.

Listeners also were directed to SCN’s recently updated web-based “Homeland Security and Preparedness Training Center.”

U.S. expects Iran sanctions to bear results within two months


The Obama administration expects a significant drop in foreign dealings with the Central Bank of Iran in the next two months.

U.S. officials launched a campaign to have countries that deal with Iran to comply with new sanctions as soon as President Obama signed them into law on Dec. 31, a senior administration official said Wednesday in a briefing for Israeli and Jewish media.

The sanctions in the law target third parties that deal with Iran’s financial and energy sectors; for years the United States has banned dealings by its own citizens with those sectors.

The sanctions on non-petroleum dealings with Iran’s financial sector kick in within 60 days of the signing, and the Obama administration expects “significant” changes by that time.

Sanctions on Iran’s energy sector are expected to have an effect within three months, the official said, reflecting the timelines for such sanctions written into the law.

Much of the effort has focused on persuading nations that deal with Iran to diversify their intake of oil from other suppliers, notably Saudi Arabia and Libya, or conversely on having those countries use the sanctions as leverage to force Iran to heavily discount its oil.

In the latter case, the countries would agree to backchannel deals with Iran to avert U.S. sanctions and demand a cut in price as compensation.

There are signs that China and India, both major purchasers of Iranian oil, already have responded, the official said. China has sought discounts from the Iranians and is seeking to diversify its intake, as is India, the official said.

The overall goal of the sanctions is to cut income to Iran. The official said the Obama administration has calculated that the sanctions will not affect U.S. gasoline prices.

Why we should not bomb Iran


[Counter-point: Why we should attack Iran]

In endorsing bombing Iran as a neat way to address Iran’s nuclear program, Matthew Kroenig makes the case that the theoretical nightmare of a nuclear Iran could be more or less eliminated, and that even if that can’t be fully accomplished, the bombing could buy time. But the logic of his argument does not acknowledge that the facts on the ground are not so clear.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran’s intentions with nuclear technology are not definitively known. Speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Jan. 8, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made clear that he does not believe Iran is working on the bomb.

However, we do know, as Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in a recent column in The Atlantic, that a “potentially out-of-control conventional war raging across the Middle East” could “cost the lives of thousands of Iranians, Israelis, Gulf Arabs and even American servicemen.”

And that makes the decision against war a no-brainer. As Goldberg put it:

“Now that sanctions seem to be biting — in other words, now that Iran’s leaders understand the President’s seriousness on the issue — the Iranians just might be willing to pay more attention to proposals about an alternative course.”

That alternative course would be an attempt “to try one more time to reach out to the Iranian leadership in order to avoid a military confrontation over Tehran’s nuclear program.”

In short, dialogue.

The United States, to this day, has never attempted a true dialogue with Tehran. Even under President Barack Obama, all we have done is issue demands about its nuclear program and offer to meet to discuss precisely how the Iranians should comply with those demands.

That is not dialogue, and it’s not negotiation; it’s an ultimatum.

The one attempt at dialogue (i.e., a discussion that involves give and take by both sides) was initiated by the Iranian government in 2003. That was when it proposed, according to the Washington Post, “a broad dialogue with the United States … everything was on the table — including full cooperation on nuclear programs, acceptance of Israel and the termination of Iranian support for Palestinian militant groups.” In exchange, Iran wanted normalization of relations with the United States.

As is well known, the United States did not respond. Not a word. In fact, we chastised the Swiss intermediary who delivered the offer for having the temerity to do so.

It was the Unted States, not Iran, that spurned a process that could have led to improved relations.

Rather than diplomacy, we’ve pursued a policy of sanctions, which we escalate every time the war lobby demands them.

U.S. reportedly tells Iran: Strait closing is ‘red line’


The United States relayed a message to Iran that blocking the Strait of Hormuz would be a “red line,” the New York Times reported.

The newspaper reported Friday that there is considerable skepticism in the Obama administration and among the military that Iran would go through with threats to shut the strait, through which much of the world’s oil must pass, if only because Iran would effectively cut off its own oil trade by doing so.

Nonetheless, the threat was deemed important enough to convey to Iran through secret channels that such a shutting would prompt a military response.

Iran issued the threats in the wake of a series of steps the Obama administration has taken in recent weeks to intensify sanctions until Iran agrees to make more transparent its suspected nuclear weapons program.

A number of media outlets are reporting this week that Iran has agreed to reopen discussions later this month about its nuclear program, which it maintains is purely civilian in nature, with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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

With Stuxnet delaying Iran’s bomb, is the urgency gone?


In the wake of revelations that a computer virus may have set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Western groups and analysts that track the Islamic Republic are saying “More of the same, please.”

The benefits of a nonviolent program that inhibits Iranian hegemony by keeping the country’s nuclear weapons program at bay are obvious: Better to stop Iran with cyber warfare—in this case, the Stuxnet computer virus, which reportedly caused Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to spin out of control—than actual warfare.

For those who favor engagement, the cyber attack buys more time to coax the regime in Tehran into compliance. For those who favor the stick, it allows more time to exert pressure on Iran through sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Almost coincident with last weekend’s revelations—published in Sunday’s New York Times in a piece that detailed the extent of the damage caused by the virus—Meir Dagan, the outgoing head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, said that Iran likely would not have a bomb before 2015. Prior to that, Israeli assessments had predicted a weapon as early as this year.

The Stuxnet revelations, if anything, reinforce the need for a tough stance, said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. They underscore how committed Iran is to producing a bomb, he told JTA.

“It’s a reason to push down on the pedal,” said Berman, who crafted the most recent Iran sanctions law in the Congress. “Iran is still enriching uranium. It is absolutely critical we bear down with a comprehensive strategy of which sanctions is a critical part.”

Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the delay was welcome but that the prospect of new complacency in the wake of its announcement makes it more urgent than ever to maintain a posture that includes the threat of a military strike on Iran.

“No individual measure is a silver bullet,” he said. Stuxnet “set back the program but hasn’t stopped it. If you’re going to target a hard-line regime, you’ve got to have a military option on the table.”

Such a concern was behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s furious backpedaling in the wake of Dagan’s pronouncement about 2015. The Israeli leader dismissed the prediction as one of several “intelligence estimates.” Dagan, reportedly under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office, recast the deadline this week as 2014 and noted carefully that Iran is capable of surprises.

Champions of engagement also welcomed the revelations of the damage Stuxnet apparently caused to Iran’s nuclear program, seeing it as an opportunity.

“The cyber worm may have set back Iran’s nuclear program, but it is unlikely to alter its nuclear ambitions,” said Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. “In order to introduce real change, the U.S. and its international allies must change the manner in which they deal with Iran and start to comprehensively engage with Tehran.”

Hadar Susskind, the vice president for policy at J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby that advocates for U.S. pressure on Israel in talks with the Palestinians, said the news of the virus demonstrated that there are creative ways of working around military brinksmanship when it comes to Iran.

“Any nonviolent method is good,” Susskind said. “It shows we can create more time using a range of tools.”

No nation or entity has acknowledged being behind the virus, which seemed to be designed to assume control of the nervous system at Iran’s nuclear facilities and to spin the centrifuges out of control, damaging about a fifth of them. The Times, citing anonymous sources, suggested that it was a U.S.-led venture with Israel’s cooperation. Germany and Britain also may have been involved, though perhaps unwittingly.

Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the nonproliferation and disarmament program at the London-based International Institute of International Studies, said it was critical not to regard the virus as a “deus ex machina” that would allow the world to shunt aside considerations of Iran’s ambitions.

“Any solution to the Iranian crisis will require the use of a range of tools, including tougher sanctions, tighter export controls, a containment and deterrence posture, and a readiness to talk,” he said. “Stuxnet obviously provides some breathing space by extending the timeline for Iran to get a bomb. It would be nice if it also gave Iranians a sense of futility that their enrichment efforts are not going to give them a bomb anytime soon.”

That’s not likely to happen, according to Geneive Abdo, the director of the Washington-based National Security Network’s Inside Iran project. Iran’s leadership is susceptible to popular Iranian support for its nuclear program.

Because of public opinion, she said, “They’re very careful that they’re not compromising on this issue.”

If anything, Abdo said, the revelations will prod the regime to become more recalcitrant when it comes to major compromises, like shutting down enrichment entirely. Iran has tended to harden its line when it is weak.

Instead, she said, Western powers might press for compromise on smaller issues like a broader regime of U.N. inspections. Western powers are scheduled to meet this weekend in Istanbul with Iran to discuss its nuclear program.

“The West should use this breathing space to try and convince Iran to agree to more verification,” Abdo said. Citing her sources inside Iran, she said that “The Iranians are more fearful that more damage is on the way, so that’s an incentive to compromise to some degree.”

Indeed, Iran last week invited representatives of major powers to tour its enrichment plant in Natanz to see that Iran is limiting itself to civilian-level nuclear power. The major powers—including the United States, Russia, the European Union and China—declined, saying that the only inspections they would sanction would be by qualified inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog.

Dagan’s prediction and the Stuxnet leaks may have been timed precisely to pressure Iran to expand such inspections ahead of this weekend’s talks, said Trita Parsi, the director of the National Iranian American Council and the author of a number of books on Iran-Israel relations.

“The Obama administration has changed the metrics,” Parsi said.

“We’re not talking about the LEU count,” he said, referring to Iran’s burgeoning supply of low-enriched uranium, which had worried the West. “We’re talking about the centrifuges that have been destroyed. Shifting the conversation to Stuxnet puts you in a stronger position.”

Domestically, Parsi said, the revelations also may pay off as the White House fends off demands from Congress that it ratchet up pressure on Iran, including through the military option.

Berman’s outlook suggested that was not likely.

“Let me know when Iran certifiably suspends enrichment and allows inspections, throughout all its territory, and then we can have a conversation about sanctions,” he said. “Having that military option on the table is an important part of achieving that goal and affecting their calculations.”

+