WASHINGTON – A nuclear-armed Iran would be unlikely to strike the Jewish state but would use its arsenal to intimidate adversaries across the Middle East, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Friday.
“I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, [would] drop it in the neighborhood,” Barak said. “They fully understand what might follow. They are radical but not totally crazy. They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process, and they understand reality.”
The defense minister did not go into details about the consequences of an Iranian strike, but he appeared to be alluding to an Israeli retaliation.
In a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Barak once again stressed the need for tough sanctions against Iran as he prepared to wrap up meetings with senior American officials. The two allies have disagreed on the severity of proposed new punitive measures in recent days.
“What is really needed is significant sanctions, effective ones, within a time limit,” he said.
During his five-day visit to the US, Barak emphasized that Teheran’s nuclear program was not only Israel’s problem. “Iran is not just a challenge to Israel,” he said, envisioning a nuclear-armed Teheran that intimidates its neighbors and legitimizes Islamic radicalism and terrorism.
“I can hardly think of a stable world order with a nuclear Iran,” he said.
Before his meeting at the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton later on Friday, Barak said new sanctions should be “consequential,” despite the distinct “possibility that in spite of all effort, it will not lead to Iran accepting the international norms.”
Clinton, who said in recent days that the Islamic Republic has left the international community “little choice,” made clear that the US is committed to rallying international pressure against it.
“As the recent IAEA report makes clear, Iran is not living up to its responsibilities, and we are working with our partners in the international community to increase pressure on Iran to change course,” she said.
During the meeting, they also discussed Gaza and kick-starting peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
In his speech earlier in the day, Barak said he expects proximity talks to start within the next few weeks. A majority in Israel is ready to make peace once they feel there is a readiness on the other side, he said. “We are not having this tango alone,” he added.
The Israeli defense establishment believes “that we have strategic interests in putting an end to our conflict with Syria,” Barak also said. “This is an opportunity more than a threat if navigated cleverly.”
But Barak harshly criticized the links between Hizbullah, Teheran, Damascus and Beirut. “We cannot accept it,” he said, noting that Iran, Syria and Lebanon are all members of the UN. “We are strong enough to face a deterioration if it happens on our northern front, but we are not interested in it. We will not initiate it.”
Finally, he described the efforts of an Israeli delegation in Beijing last week that sought to “exchange views” and “share information” with its Chinese counterparts.
While in Washington, Barak met with senior American officials, including Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden on Friday, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Middle East envoy George Mitchell on Thursday.
During his talk with Gates, Barak reportedly stressed the importance of “crippling” sanctions. But US officials backed away from the term, and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said it was not the US “intent to have crippling sanctions that have a significant impact on the Iranian people. Our actual intent is to find ways to pressure the government while protecting the people.”
Barak sought to downplay any disagreement between Israel and the US, during a briefing with reporters on Thursday night. He said sanctions needed to be “done urgently and with emphasis, tenacity and determination.”
Pressed on the US resistance to “crippling” sanctions, he responded: “I don’t think the point is about discussing the definition of sanctions,” rather whether they will stop Iran’s nuclear capability. “This is the criteria by which we’ll judge.”
Though Israel and the US do not see eye-to-eye on all issues, “in the most important things our positions are getting closer,” he said. “My impression is that America is investing effort and political capital [to stop the Iranian nuclear march].”
Barak emphasized during his speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that Israeli leaders want peace with their neighbors, both to normalize relations and to prevent the risk of a deteriorated relationship that leads to violence.
But he emphasized that Israel cannot afford to take security risks.
Middle East is not the Midwest, neither Western Europe,” Barak said.
“We are living in a tough neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood where there
is no mercy for the weak, no second opportunity for those who cannot
defend themselves.”AP contributed to this report.