On the eve of the renewal of talks in Istanbul on Friday between Iran and six world powers, government officials in Jerusalem dismissed on Thursday the notion that former Mossad head Meir Dagan relieved pressure on Iran by saying two weeks ago that Teheran would not have the bomb at least until middecade.
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Dagan’s comments did not lead to complacency, one official insisted. On the contrary, what he said should show the international community, which had believed that an Iranian bomb was a fait accompli, that a nuclear Iran was not imminent, and that there was still time to act.
“What the international community needs to do now is take advantage of the time and act forcefully,” the official said.
Jerusalem hoped that the meeting in Istanbul would lead to a ratcheting up of diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran, the official said.
“We also think that keeping the military option at center stage is also essential,” he said.
Another official said that Dagan had not taken the military option off the table by saying Israel should attack only if the “dagger was at its neck.”
Rather, he said, what Dagan did was step away from the portrayal of a crazy and irresponsible Israel that needed to be stopped from carrying out an action that could endanger the world.
There were people trying to convince other countries of the necessity of sanctions by saying that if they were not taken there was no telling what the “crazy Israelis” could do, the official said.
“The problem with that tactic is that then the international community thinks they have to stop Israel, not Iran, and that is the wrong focus,” he said.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was reportedly furious with Dagan for his comments, concerned that this would make the world complacent in its dealings with the Iranian threat. In a speech last week, Netanyahu characterized the Dagan comments as only “intelligence estimates.”
Dagan himself stepped back from his remarks during an appearance at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week, saying that Iran could “shorten the time” it takes to attain nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, wasn’t the only one worried about complacency.
A study by the Federation of American Scientists shown to The Associated Press ahead of the Istanbul meeting indicated that even as the West believes it has bought more time, Iran last year appeared to have increased efficiency of the machines that produce enriched uranium, giving it the technical capacity to produce enough material for a simple nuclear warhead in five months.
“The biggest issue with recent statements that Iran’s nuclear drive has been slowed down is that we are getting a false sense of security that we have bought more time,” Ivanka Barzashka, the author of the study, said in an e-mail. “That takes away from the urgency... [of] a diplomatic breakthrough.”
The study concluded that “contrary to statements by US officials and many experts, Iran does not appear to be slowing down its nuclear drive.”
Such views contrast with the public optimism expressed by Washington ahead of the Istanbul talks convened by the EU and grouping Iran on one side of the table and the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany on the other.
Dagan’s estimate that Iran could only produce the bomb by the middle of the decade compares favorably with projections three years ago that Iran would have nuclear capacity by 2011.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told NBC’s Today show on Wednesday that the new Israeli estimates were “very significant.” The delay, she said “gives us more of a breathing space to try to work to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Two outside forces would account for any Iranian problems in enriching uranium – the increasing weight of UN sanctions, meant to choke off raw materials needed to make and maintain the program; and the apparent havoc caused by the mysterious Stuxnet computer malware.
Iran has acknowledged that Stuxnet hit “a limited number of centrifuges,” saying its scientists discovered and neutralized the malware before it could cause any serious damage. The computer worm is assumed to have caused disruption of enrichment in November that temporarily crippled thousands of centrifuges at Natanz.
Barzashka said that while the sanctions might have slowed Iran’s ability to develop new and more efficient centrifuges, they do not seem to have slowed improvements in the output of the present generation of machines used at Natanz.
Ahead of the talks, Iran is trying to take the diplomatic offensive. It is pushing an agenda that covers just about everything except its nuclear program: global disarmament, Israel’s suspected nuclear arsenal and Teheran’s concerns about US military bases in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
“Let them issue 100,000 resolutions,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday, referring to UN Security Council sanctions and other efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
“It’s not important. Let them say what they want to.”
Iran’s UN ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, repeated that his country will “never negotiate on our inalienable right to use nuclear energy for... peaceful purposes.
“It doesn’t mean that Iranians are looking for confrontation,” Khazaee told reporters in New York on Tuesday.
“But at the same time... it’s not going to work to put a knife in the neck of somebody, or your sword, and at the same time asking him to negotiate with you.”
On Thursday, Turkey urged Iran to offer assurances during the talks that it wouldn’t seek nuclear weapons.
“We are against nuclear weapons, but we believe that all countries have the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Lavrov, whose country is among the world powers negotiating with Iran, said there was a need for Iran to agree to intrusive inspection of its nuclear sites.
“It’s not an obligation, but it will certainly be required given the history of the Iranian nuclear issue,” Lavrov said.