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(photo credit: AP)
Israel is anxiously awaiting the publication of an updated United States National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, with defense officials hoping it will finally prompt toughened sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Those hopes were given a boost on Thursday when the US and the European Union vowed to keep up pressure on Iran to provide details about its nuclear program, saying the country's continued refusal to prove its intentions are peaceful will draw new penalties.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said efforts to craft additional sanctions on Iran will continue. Clinton said the door to engagement remained open but stressed that the international community would not be "waited out" by Iranian resistance and would not "back down" on its demands.
"Regrettably, Iran has not responded to that engagement even as the international community's concern about the intent of Iran's nuclear program has increased," Clinton said. "We will continue our close consultation on next steps in keeping with our dual-track approach. But let me be clear, we will not be waited out and we will not back down.
"Iran has a very clear choice between continued isolation and living up to its international obligations," she said. "We are going at this in a very concerted and unified manner because we think it is important to send that message to the Iranian leadership that the world will act and the world will act together."
Israeli officials said it was likely that the NIE would be published to coincide with an intensive US bid to win support for a new round of sanctions at the UN Security Council next month, once France has succeeded China as the council's president.
The new NIE is expected to reverse the last estimate, put out by the US intelligence community in December 2007, which said it could not conclude that Iran was developing nuclear weapons.
Israel has stood by its long-standing claim that Iran never gave up its nuclear arms program, and continued to drive toward a nuclear weapons capability, apart from a brief suspension in 2003 following the US invasion of Iraq.
It is understood the revised NIE will be completed in the coming weeks and may be released to the public. Differences among US intelligence analysts reportedly now focus on whether Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has given or will soon give the green light for nuclear weapon production.
Last March, OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Iran had "crossed the technological threshold," and that its attainment of nuclear military capability was only a matter of "incorporating the goal of producing an atomic bomb into its strategy."
The revised NIE will also come out just a few months after Iran was forced to disclose the existence of a covert uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom. Israel has argued that the facility, hidden inside a tunnel under a mountain, was likely being built to enrich uranium to high military levels.
In December, the London Times
disclosed confidential intelligence documents that detailed work Iran was doing on testing a key component for a nuclear weapon called a neutron initiator.
Current Israeli policy is to give the US time to impose sanctions on Iran, with the hope that these will be effective in convincing the Islamic Republic to abandon its nuclear program.
"The US is waiting for France to take over the Security Council in February and then to move forward with sanctions," said one top defense official. "We will wait to see what will happen."
The timing of the expected publication of the NIE raises suspicions that the intelligence estimate is once again being used for political purposes. Following the publication of the NIE in 2007, which claimed that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons, Israeli and some US officials criticized the American intelligence community, saying that the report was issued to block the Bush administration from taking military action against Iran.
The revised report may be looking to do the opposite. Instead of hindering American efforts, the new, revised NIE could provide the Obama administration with the grounds for asking the Security Council to impose tougher sanctions.
Meanwhile, Ali Akbar Salehi, director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, was quoted on Thursday evening as saying the Bushehr nuclear power plant will be operational within the next few months.
Salehi said that Russia, which is responsible for building the plant, would not delay the launch.
"So far most of the tests at the Bushehr power plant have been successful. Currently the tests on the metal sphere are being conducted, which will not take more than a week or two," Salehi said.