Israel Says Iran Has Pulled Back From the Brink of Nuclear Weapon - For Now

Iran has drawn back from its ambition to build a nuclear weapon but the respite is only temporary and Tehran will still have to be confronted by next summer, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, said on Tuesday

An immediate crisis was avoided in the summer when Iran quietly chose to use over a third of its medium-enriched uranium for civilian purposes, delaying the moment when it could have built a nuclear bomb. Without this decision, Mr Barak told The Daily Telegraph, the situation would “probably” have peaked before the US presidential election.

In the event, Iran delayed the “moment of truth” by “eight to 10 months”, but Mr Barak predicted that sanctions and diplomacy would still fail to resolve the stand-off. If so, he said that Israel and its allies would probably face the decision over whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2013.

Israel reserved the right to act alone, added Mr Barak, who stated bluntly that any “operation against Iran” would be less dangerous “now” than when the country had crossed the nuclear threshold.

Mr Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, became defence minister five years ago with one driving preoccupation. His central task – indeed what he views as his historic responsibility – is to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran from threatening Israel and casting a shadow over the world.

With every passing month, Mr Barak believes that Iran is progressing steadily towards its goal. In his London hotel room, the minister laid out how, on his watch, Tehran’s stockpile of enriched uranium had grown from 850kg to 6.8 tons.

His gnawing concern is that Tehran will fortify its nuclear plants, particularly the enrichment facility dug into a mountainside at Fordow, to the point where they become invulnerable to the striking power of Israel’s air force. If Iran reaches this “zone of immunity”, Israel would lose its ability to deal independently with a crucial threat, forcing the country to trust the rest of the world and break the principle of self-reliance that underlies its very foundation.

Earlier this year, however, Iran delayed the arrival of that moment. Tehran has amassed 189kg of uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity, a vital step towards weapons-grade material. In August, the country’s experts took 38 per cent of this stockpile and converted it into fuel rods for a civilian research reactor, thus putting off the moment when they would be able to make uranium of sufficient purity for a nuclear bomb.

Mr Barak said this decision “allows contemplating delaying the moment of truth by eight to 10 months”. As for why Iran had drawn back, the minister said: “There could be at least three explanations. One is the public discourse about a possible Israeli or American operation deterred them from trying to come closer. It could probably be a diplomatic gambit that they have launched in order to avoid this issue culminating before the American election, just to gain some time. It could be a way of telling the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] 'oh we comply with our commitments’.”

Mr Barak added: “Maybe it’s a combination of all these three elements. I cannot tell you for sure.”

But this decision had probably avoided a crisis. Asked whether the critical moment would otherwise have arrived “about now”, Mr Barak replied simply: “Probably yes.”

Yet the minister stressed how Iran’s move was not a genuine change of heart. The fuel rods could be converted back into medium-enriched uranium, although this would take months and waste much of the material. In any event, Iran is now using 9,852 centrifuges to enrich uranium, according to the IAEA, so its stockpile is being replenished.

Mr Barak insisted that Iran was still resolved to build nuclear weapons, predicting that success would trigger an arms race in the Middle East and “make any non-proliferation regime impossible.Saudi Arabia will turn nuclear within weeks – according to them. Turkey will turn nuclear in several years. The new Egypt will have to follow”.The world would start the “countdown” to the “nightmare” of “nuclear material ending up in the hands of terrorist groups”.

Because the possible consequences were so terrible, Mr Barak said that America and Europe shared Israel’s analysis. “We all agree that the Iranians are determined to turn into a military nuclear power and we all share the declaration that we are determined to prevent Iran from turning nuclear and all options are on the table,” said Mr Barak. “We mean it – we expect others to mean it as well. So it’s not something just about us. But we, for obvious reasons, see the Iranian threat in much more concrete terms.”

In the final analysis, Mr Barak insisted that Israel would decide for itself whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. “When it comes to the very core of our security interests and, in a way, the future of Israel, we cannot delegate the responsibility for making decisions even into the hands of our most trusted and trustworthy ally,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we would be sorry if the Iranians come to the conclusion on their own. The opposite is true. But, if no one acts, we will have to contemplate action.”

He added: “Basically, it’s about the question of when they come into this zone of immunity, where no Israeli surgical attack, probably somewhat later not even an American surgical attack, can delay them significantly. That’s the issue that bothers us.”

As for when Iran will reach the “zone of immunity”, depriving Israel of its military option, Mr Barak forecast this would probably happen “next spring or early summer”.

Mr Barak acknowledged that the sanctions on Iran were “unprecedented in scale and depth”, but he still predicted their failure. “To tell you the truth, out of long experience of the Middle East, I am extremely sceptical about the chances that it will lead the ayatollahs to sit together at any point in the foreseeable future and decide to give up their intention to go in the footsteps of Pakistan and North Korea and turn into a military nuclear power,” he said.

“They think of themselves as a major regional power from the dawn of history and they are determined not to fall into the trap that, in their mind, in their judgment, the late Gaddafi fell into.”

The costs and risks of a preventive war would only mount, so the option of acting “now” must be retained, he stressed. “It’s not a minor decision to contemplate an operation against Iran, but however complicated, dangerous – it probably carries some unintended consequences – an operation against Iran could be now – think of what it means to try it when Iran is already nuclear, several years down the stream,” he said.

“It would be much more complicated, much more dangerous and – with far-reaching, unintended potential consequences – much more costly in terms of human lives.”

Mr Barak offered a message of cold realism. “Don’t misread me,” he said. “We would love to wake up one morning and learn, against my expectations, that the ayatollahs gave it up. I don’t believe it will happen.”

Source: Daily Telegraph