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 further expanding enrichment capacity, Western diplomats say


Iran is believed to be further increasing its uranium enrichment capacity at its Fordow plant buried deep underground, Western diplomats say, in another sign of Tehran defying international demands to curb its disputed nuclear program.

But they said the Islamic Republic did not yet appear to have started up the newly-installed centrifuges to boost production of material which Iran says is for reactor fuel but which can also have military uses if processed more.

“Iran continues to build up enrichment capacity,” one Western official said.

A diplomat accredited to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said: “We think that they have continued installing centrifuges at Fordow. We think that their pace has continued the same as it was, which was pretty rapid.”

If confirmed in the next IAEA report on Iran's atomic activities, expected in mid-November, it would suggest Iran is steadily moving towards completing installment of centrifuges at the Fordow subterranean centrifuge site.

The work may be “near complete,” the Vienna-based diplomat said, in remarks echoed by another envoy.

There was no immediate comment from Iran or the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear agency based in the Austrian capital.

Fordow – which Tehran only disclosed the existence of in 2009 after learning that Western spy services had detected it – is of particular concern for the United States and its allies as Iran uses it for its higher-grade enrichment.

Iran says it needs uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, compared with the level of up to 5 percent it produces at its main enrichment facility at Natanz, to make fuel for a medical research reactor in Tehran.

STALLED DIPLOMACY

But it also takes Iran a significant technical step closer to the 90 percent concentration needed for bombs, explaining the West's growing concern about the Islamic state's stockpile of the material.

A U.S.-based think-tank, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), this month said Iran would currently need at least two to four months to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb, and additional time to make the device itself.

Last week, Iranian officials said Tehran would negotiate on halting higher-grade enrichment if given fuel for the research reactor, in a possible attempt to show flexibility in stalled nuclear talks with world powers.

The IAEA said in its last report on Iran in late August that the country had doubled the number of centrifuges to 2,140 at Fordow since the previous report in May. More than 600 remained to be installed, the report showed.

Since then, diplomats said they thought Iran had put in place more centrifuges at the site near the holy Shi'ite Muslim city of Qom, about 130 km (80 miles) from Tehran and located deep under soil and rock for protection against any attack.

“They continue sort of unabated,” one envoy said.

But they said Iran was still operating the same number of machines as it has been since early this year, nearly 700 centrifuges.

It was not clear when the new equipment would be launched or whether Iran was holding back for technical or political reasons. It is also not known whether the centrifuges which are not yet operating will be used for 5 or 20 percent enrichment, or both, the diplomats say.

Any move by Iran to increase the number of working centrifuges – and the production rate – would be swiftly condemned by its foes in the West and Israel and may further complicate diplomacy aimed at resolving the dispute.

Iran says its nuclear program is a peaceful project to generate electricity but its refusal to limit the work and lack of transparency with U.N. inspectors have been met with increasingly tough Western sanctions targeting its oil exports.

European Union governments imposed sanctions on Tuesday against major Iranian state companies in the oil and gas industry, and strengthened restrictions on the central bank, cranking up financial pressure on Tehran.

Editing by Jon Hemming

Iran to enrich uranium to 60 percent if nuclear talks fail


Iran would enrich uranium up to 60 percent purity if negotiations with major powers over its nuclear program fail, an Iranian lawmaker said on Tuesday, in comments that may add to Western alarm about Iranian intentions.

Mansour Haqiqatpour, deputy head of parliament's Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, said 60 percent enrichment would be to yield fuel for nuclear submarines, which often require uranium refined to high levels.

But it would also take Iran another significant step closer to the 90 percent enrichment level needed to make atomic bombs, which the West suspects is the Islamic state's ultimate aim. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful energy only.

Even though it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and not the parliament – who decides foreign policy issues, Haqiqatpour's remarks were a sign of Iranian defiance in the face of Western demands to curb sensitive nuclear activity.

Iran now enriches uranium to a 3.5 percent concentration of the fissile isotope U-235 – suitable for nuclear power plants – as well as 20 percent, which it says it needs for a medical research reactor.

Israel, Iran's arch foe, says Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability and last week warned the Islamic state will be on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon by mid-2013, referring to its growing stock of 20 percent material.

But Western experts believe Iran is still a few years away from being able to assemble a nuclear-armed missile.

Haqiqatpour's comments, carried by Iran's English-language Press TV, appeared to be an attempt to show the six world powers involved in diplomacy with Tehran that it has no intention of backing down in the long-running nuclear dispute.

The powers – including the United States, Russia, China and six European heavyweights – want Iran to halt 20 percent enrichment, shut down the underground facility where this is done and ship out the stockpile.

Iran wants the powers to recognize its “right” to refine uranium and also ease sanctions on it. Three rounds of talks since April have failed to make any breakthrough.

“In case our talks with the (six powers) fail to pay off, Iranian youth will master (the technology for) enrichment up to 60 percent to fuel submarines and ocean-going ships,” Haqiqatpour said.

The powers should know that “if these talks continue into next year, Iran cannot guarantee it would keep its enrichment limited to 20 percent. This enrichment is likely to increase to 40 or 50 percent,” he said.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Zahra Hosseinian; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran reportedly installs hundreds of new uranium enrichment machines


Iran may have installed as many as “hundreds of new” uranium enrichment machines in its underground nuclear facility at Fordow.

“Our basic understanding is that they were continuing to install,” Reuters quotes an unnamed diplomat based in Vienna as saying.

The new centrifuges were not yet operating, according to the Reuters report. Another source spoke of “hundreds of new machines.”

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is scheduled to release a report on Iran’s nuclear program next week. Talks between IAEA representatives and Iranian delegates resume on Friday at the agency’s headquarters in the Austrian capital.

If the Reuters report matches the conclusions of the UN atomic watchdog report, the development could be seen as a sign of Iran’s continued defiance of international demands to curb its nuclear program.

The fresh round of talks follow discussions that ended in failure in June.

The IAEA negotiations are separate from talks between Iran and world powers, which have made little progress since restarting in April after a 15-month hiatus.

Israel and other Western countries believe the Iranian nuclear program is aimed at building nuclear weapons. Tehran repeatedly says that its nuclear activity is a domestic energy creating program and for peaceful research.

During next week’s talks in Vienna, the parties also are expected to discuss claims that Iran is cleaning up facilities at its Parchin site near Tehran, allegedly to remove any sign of illicit nuclear activity. In the past, Tehran has dismissed allegations about Parchin, which it says is a normal military site.

The IAEA suspects Iran has conducted tests with a military dimension at Parchin; the talks with IAEA officials are expected to again press Iran for access to the site.

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.

Higher grade Iranian enriched uranium uncovered


Evidence found in an underground bunker in Iran could signal the country’s having moved one step closer toward the uranium threshold needed to make nuclear arms, International Atomic Energy Agency diplomats said today.

IAEA inspectors found traces of uranium enriched up to 27 percent at Iran’s Fordo enrichment plant, the Associated Press reported.

While still well below the 90-percent needed for a nuclear weapon’s fissile core, the figure is Iran’s highest-known enrichment grade yet. It also is well above the Islamic Republic’s main stockpile, which can only be used for fuel at around 3.5 percent.

The diplomats stressed this did not necessarily mean that Iran was pushing ahead toward weapons-grade level material. One possible explanation, they explained, was that the centrifuges that produce enriched uranium initially over-enriched at the start of the process as technicians adjusted their output.

Calls to Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief delegate to the IAEA, were rejected and the switchboard operator at the Iranian mission said he was not available. IAEA media officials said the agency had no comment.

Iran started enriching to 20 percent last year, mostly at Fordo, saying it needed the material to fuel a research reactor and for medical purposes.

US set against recognizing Iranian right to enrich


Iran’s insistence that world powers acknowledge what it sees as its right to enrich uranium emerged as a significant difference in international talks on its nuclear energy programme this week, a senior U.S. administration official said.

Speaking after two days of discussions between Iran and six world powers aimed at trying to defuse fears of a covert Iranian effort to develop nuclear bombs, the official added that looming additional sanctions were likely to raise pressure on Iran to seek an agreement ahead of a further round of talks in mid-June.

“These were difficult talks … obviously we were far apart (at the start),” said the official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject.

The official said a “significant difference” at the meeting was Iran’s insistence that its right to enrich be recognized.

“Obviously (that) was not something we were prepared to do,” the official said, echoing the U.S. view that Iran does not automatically have this right under international law because, it argues, Iran is in violation of its obligations under counter-proliferation safeguards.

Work would continue at the next round of talks, set for Moscow on June 18-19, towards a deal for a suspension of enrichment of uranium to a fissile purity of 20 percent, the official said.

That is the nuclear advance most worrying to the West since it clears technical obstacles to reaching 90 percent, or bomb-grade, enrichment. Iran says it will not exceed 20 percent and the material will be made into fuel for a research reactor.

“We never expected to get that agreement (on 20 percent) here in Baghdad,” the official said.

“There is agreement to address all aspects of 20 percent as we put it on the table.”

The official said the six powers were going to try to advance the talks “as fast as we can”. But it was too early to talk about technical level or expert meetings because the political issues still needed to be clarified.

The official said sanctions coming into effect in coming weeks would increase leverage on Iran in the negotiations.

“Maximum pressure is not yet being felt by Iran,” the official said, adding there were many other potential sanctions that remained to be employed.

Tehran wants any nuclear deal to spare it from an EU embargo on its oil exports to be phased in fully by July 1. It also wants an end to trade and diplomatic sanctions imposed since 2006.

Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by William Maclean and Sophie Hares

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

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

Barak: Israel did not promise not to attack Iran


Israel did not promise the United States that it would abstain from attacking Iran while negotiations are going on, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.

“We are not committing to anything,” Barak told Israel’s Army Radio during an interview from Bogota, Colombia. He added that Israel’s dialogue on the subject with America is “direct and open.”

Barak said the current negotiations between Iran and six world powers on Iran’s nuclear program taking place in Istanbul, Turkey, need to be “purposeful and results-oriented. They need to clarify if Iran is genuinely willing to stop its military nuclear program or not.

“For this we don’t need months upon months. It requires a few direct meetings where all the demands are put on the table. There you can see if the other side is playing for time, drawing it out through the year, or if indeed the other side is genuinely striving to find a solution.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on April 15 that the decision to continue the talks in five weeks in Baghdad amounts to a “freebie” for Iran, allowing them to continue to enrich uranium “without any limitation, any inhibition.”

Barak, who is on a five-day visit to Colombia and the United States, said that Israel believes the talks “will probably not have an impact or bring the Iranians to cease their nuclear program.”

“Of course we will be happy to be proven wrong,” he added.

Barak said, “The world must find a way of preventing this; not for Israel, but for the stability and peace of the world.”

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes; the West fears that Iran may be enriching uranium in order to produce a nuclear bomb.

Netanyahu has called on the international community to halt Iran’s nuclear production by force if necessary, and has warned that the window in which to prevent Iran’s production of a nuclear bomb is rapidly closing.

Obama responded to Netanyahu’s “freebie” accusation on April 15, saying, “The notion that somehow we’ve given something away or a ‘freebie’ would indicate Iran has gotten something. In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks.”

Barak was scheduled to meet with his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, on April 19 in Washington.

Israel says sabotage may stretch Iran atom timeline


Israel on Tuesday played down the prospect of an imminent attack on Iran, saying its arch-foe’s controversial nuclear program could still be set back by sanctions and sabotage.

Six world powers are expected to renew efforts next month to talk Tehran into curbing its uranium enrichment, which can yield fuel for atomic warheads as well as for civilian projects. Iran denies having any hostile designs.

Israel, widely believed to have an atomic arsenal, sees a mortal threat in a nuclear-armed Iran. It has caused international concern, and worried oil markets, by hinting it could resort to military strikes if it deems diplomacy, including mounting global sanctions, to be at a dead end.

Moshe Yaalon, a senior deputy to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the mid-April talks would show “if there is a chance that the sanctions are working or that the Iranians are continuing to maneuver and advance toward a military nuclear capability”.

But asked during an interview with Israel’s Army Radio if this meant the Netanyahu government might be just weeks away from launching a war against Iran, Yaalon demurred.

“No. Look, we have to see,” he said. “The (Iranian nuclear) project is not static—whether that means progress, or sometimes, retreat. All sorts of things are happening there.”

“Sometimes there are explosions, sometimes there are worms there, viruses, all kinds of things like that,” Yaalon said, suggesting that setbacks plaguing Iran over the past three years, including the assassination of several of its scientists and the Stuxnet malware that stymied core computer systems, could be repeated.

AN END TO ENRICHMENT?

Iran accused Israel of involvement in the past sabotage. Israel has not responded directly to the allegation, though it says it coordinates many of its efforts to tackle Tehran’s atomic ambitions with Western and regional allies.

Netanyahu demanded, during a Washington visit this month, that any diplomatic deal with Iran end its uranium enrichment and remove its stockpiles of the fuel. Iran has ruled that out.

Speculation about a looming Israeli-Iran conflict has also raised the question of whether Netanyahu is bluffing in a bid to intensify pressure on Tehran by a war-wary Washington.

Many independent experts, and the senior U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey, have voiced doubt about Israel’s ability to deliver lasting damage to Iran’s distant, dispersed, and well-defended facilities.

The sabre-rattling by some Israelis seems at odds with the secrecy that would normally attend a seriously planned attack.

“What we journalists hear in closed rooms is staggering,” wrote Ari Shavit, a columnist with the liberal Haaretz daily.

“The officials talking to us seem to be genuine and earnest. The sources are top-notch and what they say is consistent with what we know of the preparations being made by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). There are no blunt lies here. There is no cheap spin.”

Asked on Army Radio if Israel had decided to strike Iran, Yaalon said: “Even if it had, I would not share that with you.”

Another Netanyahu deputy, Dan Meridor, said he opposed discussing the military option in public because this inadvertently shored Iran up against sanctions.

“What it helps do, to my regret, is to raise the price of oil, and this compensates for the decline in Iran’s oil production,” Meridor told Israeli television on Saturday.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Iran shrugs off latest U.S. sanctions, trade suffers


Iran castigated its U.S. adversary on Tuesday over new financial measures to disrupt Iranian commerce, and a default on payment for rice purchases highlighted the encroachment of sanctions on the staples of everyday life.

Lawmakers in Tehran vowed to ban crude exports to European countries even before an EU oil embargo takes effect.

The U.S. sanctions, targeting Iran’s central bank and giving U.S. banks new powers to freeze Iranian government assets, were the latest in a tightening web of international measures aimed at forcing the Islamic Republic to scrap sensitive nuclear work.

“It is an antagonistic move, psychological warfare which has no impact… There is nothing new, it has been going on for over 30 years,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said, referring to three decades of U.S.-Iranian hostility.

Rice exporters said Iranian buyers had defaulted on payment for 200,000 tonnes of rice from their top supplier India in another sign that Western financial sanctions are disrupting trade, even in one of Iran’s food staples.

While a plunging rial has made forward purchases costlier, the sanctions are hampering Iranian traders who have used Dubai-based middlemen to keep paying Indian rice suppliers.

Grain ships are docked outside Iranian ports, traders are not booking fresh cargoes and exports of staples to Iran such as maize are falling due to problems collecting payment from buyers. Maize is used widely to feed livestock and shortages, when they work their way through, could force farmers into stress slaughter.

Graphic by Reuters

Tension with the West rose last month when the United States and the European Union targeted Iranian oil exports in their efforts to halt Tehran’s suspected quest for an atomic bomb.

Mehmanparast said the pressure would not deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear program it says has only peaceful purposes. “Our history has shown that sanctions, which are totally illogical, have accelerated our nation’s progress,” he added.

REPRISAL SANCTIONS

Stung by U.S. President Barack Obama’s latest financial jab, Iranian MPs promised to speed passage of a bill to oblige the government to ban oil exports to some EU states well before the 25-nation bloc phases in its own embargo in July.

“The draft bill has been almost finalized. It will oblige the government to immediately cut oil exports to the EU. The bill also will ban import of any goods from the EU,” lawmaker Parviz Sarvari told Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.

Washington and its allies have been cranking up pressure on Iran to cut off the government’s access to capital and oil revenues with the goal of pushing Tehran back into negotiations to resolve the nuclear stand-off through diplomacy.

Mehmanparast said Iran would soon write to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton about resuming talks with big powers, although he added that its nuclear rights were “not negotiable.”

The last talks in January 2010 failed because of Iran’s refusal to halt its sensitive uranium enrichment work, as demanded by the U.N. Security Council and six world powers.

Washington and Israel have not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve Iran’s nuclear row.

Iran has warned of a “painful” answer, saying it would hit Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf as well as block the vital Gulf oil shipping route through the Strait of Hormuz.

The measures authorized by Obama on Sunday are likely to slow Iran’s trade with Asia by making payments more difficult, traders said on Tuesday, although the more determined can still find a route through Middle Eastern intermediaries.

U.S. sanctions now encompass all Iran’s financial institutions and oblige financial bodies doing business in the United States to block and freeze transactions with a suspected link to Iran. Previous sanctions had only required American banks to reject those transactions.

TRADE HEADACHES

Asian importers of Iranian crude, fuel oil and iron ore will find the measures snarl payment, already often routed via Middle East middlemen. Iran will have to take more payment in illiquid currencies, raising costs and piling pressure on its rial.

On January 26, Iran announced an 8 percent devaluation of the rial and said it would enforce a single exchange rate, aiming to stamp out a black market where the dollar’s value has soared due to fears over new sanctions imposed by the West.

“Iranian cargoes I can get, that’s not a problem. But how to pay is a problem,” said an iron ore trader in New Delhi.

Vijay Setia, president of the All India Rice Exporters’ Association, said the Iranian default had prompted him to ask the Indian government to step in. “It is a serious issue and we do not rule out further payment defaults by Iran,” he said.

Setia said India should not send any more rice to Iran on credit, adding suppliers such as those in Thailand, Vietnam and Pakistan had already stopped doing so.

Iranian fuel oil shipments through Singapore are slowing as sanction worries deter traders, while some Iranian iron ore exporters are accelerating loadings to China for fear of even more difficulty procuring ships and payment later this month.

Iran’s economy is already so weakened that its oil exports are more valuable than its imports of food and consumer goods, making it difficult to offset its exports by paying for imports.

Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby in Beijing and Ratnajyoti Dutta and Mayank Bhardwaj in New Delhi; Writing by Alistair Lyon; editing by Janet McBride

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.

Ehud Barak: Attack on Iran ‘very far off’


An Israeli attack on Iran is “very far off,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.

“We haven’t made any decision to do this. The entire thing is very far off,” Barak said during an interview Wednesday with Israel’s Army Radio after being asked whether the United States was calling on Israel to be informed before any planned attack against Iran.

Barak did not specify what “far” meant, but said that “it certainly is not urgent.”

The interview comes ahead of a visit Thursday by Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. joint military chiefs of staff, who is expected to press Israel not to strike Iran. It will be Dempsey’s first visit to Israel since becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September

Israel and the United States earlier this week delayed their largest ever anti-missile exercise; it is believed that tensions over Iran is one of the major reasons for the delay.

Western nations believe that Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at building a bomb, while Iran insists it is for peaceful purposes.

EU, U.S. slam Iran nuclear work at U.N. council meeting


France, Britain, Germany and the United States on Wednesday took advantage of a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council to condemn Iran’s decision to begin enriching uranium at an underground bunker.

The volley of criticism of Tehran will likely add to the pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear program, though Western envoys said there was little chance the 15-nation council would impose a fifth round of U.N. sanctions on the Iranians anytime soon due to resistance from veto powers Russia and China.

“It’s a worrying development,” French Deputy Ambassador Martin Briens told reporters about Iran’s enrichment work after the council meeting. He added that Tehran’s new move was a violation of multiple resolutions of the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors.

As sanctions have begun to squeeze the Islamic Republic, Iran has threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, the outlet for 40 percent of the world’s traded oil.

At the same time, it has called for fresh nuclear talks with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, a group known as the “P5+1,” which have been stalled for a year.

But Briens said it was Iran that was preventing the resumption of negotiations with the P5+1. “We keep on trying to get … serious negotiations to start, but so far Iran has not responded,” he said.

The United States imposed additional sanctions on Iran last month and the European Union is expected to agree on a ban on imports of Iranian crude oil later this month.

Diplomats said Russian and Chinese envoys also voiced worries about Iran’s latest nuclear announcement.

“A number of council members expressed concern,” Britain’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Philip Parham said. “Russia also said this was a matter for concern and China talked about the need to comply with international obligations.”

“There is no doubt about concern in the Security Council on this issue,” Parham said. Russian and Chinese envoys did not address reporters after the council meeting.

Both Briens and Parham said that the former clandestine nature of the underground enrichment facility near the city of Qom cast doubt on Iran’s statements that the facility is for civilian purposes. The then secret site’s existence was revealed in September 2009 by the United States, France and Britain.

“We see this as a step of escalation by … Iran,” Deputy German Ambassador Miguel Berger said.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo echoed the views of her European counterparts, saying Iran had “no justification for enriching uranium at this level.”

Despite the expressions of concern, Western diplomats said the council was not ready to approve additional U.N. sanctions against Tehran at the moment due to Russian and Chinese opposition.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Wednesday that Moscow opposed U.S. and possible European oil sanctions against Iran, even if Tehran presses ahead with uranium enrichment.

Berger said council members did not discuss the killing on Wednesday in Tehran of an Iranian nuclear scientist, who was blown up in his car by a motorbike hitman. Iran blamed the United States and Israel for the attack, though Washington denied any connection to the apparent assassination.

Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Eric Walsh