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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
An American intelligence report claiming that Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 but was continuing to enrich uranium is irrelevant and will not impact decisions about how to handle Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Tuesday.
Lieberman said the Iranians had succeeded in hiding much of their nuclear progress from the Americans and that the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have to be targeted with sanctions even if he was not pursuing nuclear weapons.
"No one really knows how long it will be before they actually have a bomb," Lieberman said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post at his Jerusalem office. "The report will not make any difference. We already knew the conclusions of the American experts, but they don't change anything. What is a year or two? It's nothing."
In a new assessment made public on Monday, the US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran - a synthesis of information from American spy agencies - concluded that Iran had suspended its attempt to build a nuclear weapon. The unclassified summary marked a surprising reversal of the previous US view that Iran was aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stopped short of disputing the US assessment on Tuesday, playing down the new gap between the Israeli and American views.
"According to this report, and to the American position, it is vital to continue efforts to prevent Iran from attaining [nuclear] capability," Olmert told reporters before meeting with Italy's deputy prime minister, Francesco Rutelli.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday that he was familiar with the report, which US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates showed him during the Annapolis peace summit last week.
"I am familiar with the American intelligence assessment," Barak said following a meeting with Hungarian Chief of Staff Gen. Andras Havril. "Nevertheless, I say again that Iran is today a central threat to the world and the State of Israel."
He said that the world and Israel needed to take steps to confront the threat and thwart it.
"There is a lot that can be done with regard to the Iranian nuclear program, but it is important to mention that words do not stop missiles," the defense minister said. "Action is needed in the form of sanctions, in the diplomatic sphere and in other spheres as well."
Last month, Barak said a military operation was a viable option for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat.
"We cannot take any option off the table, and we need to study operational aspects," Barak said at a Labor Party meeting in Beersheba at the time. "This is not just for the coming months, but also for the coming two years."
On Tuesday, Barak said Israeli intelligence believed Iran was still trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
"It's apparently true that in 2003, Iran stopped pursuing its military nuclear program for a time. But in our opinion, it has apparently continued that program since then," Barak told Army Radio.
"There are differences in the assessments of different organizations in the world about this, and only time will tell who is right," he said.
Asked if the new US assessment reduced chances that the US would launch a military strike on Iran, Barak said that was "possible." However, he said, "we cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the earth, even if it is from our greatest friend."
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni briefed Israel's ambassadors abroad on the US intelligence report and instructed them to keep up the battle against Iran's nuclearization.
"Everyone agrees with the assessment that the world cannot come to terms with a nuclear Iran," Livni said. "Iran's desire to gain nuclear weapons has been proven, and it is clear to all that it is continuing with its efforts to achieve the technology."
Livni said the "critical" point would be when Iran gained the technological ability to master the nuclear cycle, because then it would be able to use that knowledge to develop nuclear weapons whenever it saw fit. This has been a long-standing point of difference between the US and Israel, with the US saying the point of no return would be when Iran actually began building a bomb.
Livni said the sanctions policy had proven itself effective and needed to be continued in a "coordinated and determined way."
In a related development, Livni left late Tuesday night for a 24-hour trip to Slovenia, which will take over the rotating presidency of the EU from Portugal on January 1. Iran, and the need to continue and step-up the international sanctions, is expected to be one of the topics of her talks with the Slovenian leadership.
Lieberman, meanwhile, said that besides the pursuit of nuclear weapons, Iran was threatening the West via Hamas, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and groups that regularly attack American forces in Iraq and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He said that this alone would justify intensifying sanctions aimed at pressuring Iran as long as Ahmadinejad's regime remained in power.
Expressing satisfaction with the success of the first two rounds of United Nations sanctions on Iran, Lieberman said he believed a third round of sanctions would be applied within two weeks after the Chinese acquiesced. He said that Russia was also "handling the Iranian issue responsibly."
Asked about Russia's decision to sell Iran nuclear fuel for its reactor at Bushehr, Lieberman said the fuel had not been supplied and that he was hopeful it would not be.
He was more critical of Russia for "supplying Syria with advanced technology that threatens Israel," but he said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had kept his promise to sell Syria only defense systems and not attack systems.
Asked when the deadline to give up on sanctions and pursue a military strategy with Iran would be, Lieberman declined to answer.
"I hope the diplomatic effort works and prevents them from obtaining a nuclear bomb," Lieberman said. "[Such efforts] worked in Libya and North Korea, and we hope it works with Iran. If it doesn't, we will sit and decide whatever we have to decide."
Not only does Israeli intelligence believe Iran is still pursuing a nuclear bomb, defense officials said this week, the Israelis are worried about the possibility that Iran might have already received ready-made nuclear material from North Korea, dramatically speeding up the process.
Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Iran analyst, said Tuesday that the US might have been tricked.
"The Americans are basically saying that their information on Iran is better than what Israel has," Javedanfar said. "But it can never be discounted that the Americans are victims of a very clever Iranian disinformation campaign - they are very good at this."
But all residents of the Middle East should hope US intelligence got it right, Javedanfar said.
"They got it wrong in Iraq, and if they get it wrong regarding Iran, then I think the implications are going to be even worse," he said.
AP contributed to this report.