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(photo credit: AP)
The world must let the Iranian leadership see its determination to impose far-reaching sanctions that could eventually harm Iran and its citizens, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, leader of Israel's team in the strategic dialogue with the US, told The Jerusalem Post on the eve of the expiration of the UN ultimatum to Iran requiring it cease uranium enrichment or face further sanctions.
Mofaz, who has served in the past both as the army's chief of General Staff and as defense minister, stopped well short, however, of advocating military action.
"Military steps are the very last option after all the other processes are exhausted," Mofaz said, "and we are far from that."
At the same time, he said that the public could rest assured that Israel was "making all the efforts necessary to defend itself, and we have said that time and time again."
In Iran, meanwhile, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a crowd of thousands that it was no problem for his country to stop uranium enrichment, but that "fair talks" demanded a similar gesture from the West.
"That... we shut down our nuclear fuel cycle program to let talks begin. It's no problem. But justice demands that those who want to hold talks with us shut down their nuclear fuel cycle program, too. Then we can hold dialogue under a fair atmosphere," Ahmadinejad said.
"We are for talks but they have to be fair negotiations. That means both sides hold talks under equal conditions," he said.
On December 23, the UN Security Council agreed to impose limited sanctions against Iran and gave the country 60 days to halt enrichment or face additional measures. That period expires Wednesday.
At the time, Iran rejected the resolution as "illegal" and said it would not give up its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel.
Enriched to a low level, uranium is used to produce nuclear fuel, but further enrichment makes it suitable for use in building an atomic bomb.
Mofaz said Iran had a long way to go before being able to enrich uranium at a weapons-grade level, but that this was a jump that could be made with technological assistance from outside or through an Iranian technological breakthrough of their own.
He said that the US and Israel had different assessments as to when Iran was likely to reach this point, but that the difference was only over a matter of "two or three years."
Mofaz led a team in January that met in Israel with US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns and senior administration officials where they discussed sanctions, and will hold another round of talks on this and related issues in Washington in May.
Mofaz said that if no agreement on further sanctions could be reached at the UN Security Council, then the US and other like-minded countries needed to apply the sanctions on their own.
"We are speaking primarily of economic sanctions," Mofaz said. Among the possibilities that he ticked off were placing an embargo on Iranian oil exports, taking steps to cripple the Iranian financial system, placing sanctions on Iranian foreign currency reserves deposited abroad, restricting the movement of the country's leaders and placing sanctions on Iranian imports.
"Iran imports thousands of tons of food and other material that it is possible to sanction," he said. "There can be sanctions against renewing the Iranian oil industry infrastructure."
"If the world takes the right steps, in the right amount, it could lead Iran to talks with the US, just as what happened with North Korea," he said.
This was critical, he added, because "a world with a nuclear Iran is a different world."
Mofaz had no comment on French President Jacques Chirac's recent off-the-cuff comment, later retracted, that the world could live with an Iran with one or two nuclear bombs.
Saying that most Iranians were opposed to Ahmadinejad's policies, though not necessarily his nuclear program, Mofaz said that the right economic sanctions could force more and more Iranians to say: "Wait a minute, do we have to destroy our future because of an extreme leader driven by a religious ideology?"
While some in the international community are talking about a basket of sanctions that hurts the Iranian leaders, but not the citizens, Mofaz said that "there is no way to put sanctions on a country where the citizens do not suffer. I'm not saying do it against the civilians. You do it against the regime, against Iran, but slowly it seeps down."
Mofaz said that Iran's ability to retaliate against these types of steps were limited, and that Teheran was more dependent on the world than the world was dependent on it. Regarding concerns that the Iranians could wreak havoc on the world's oil markets, Mofaz said there were a number of other countries who would be willing to make up the shortfall.
Meanwhile, Russia's nuclear agency spokesman warned Tuesday that Iranian delays in payments for the construction of a Russian-built nuclear plant would push back its launch date and uranium fuel deliveries from Russia.
A top nuclear official in Iran on Monday rejected Russian claims that Teheran had been dragging its feet on payments, and accused Moscow of trying to delay the launch of the reactor.
But Russia's Federal Nuclear Power Agency spokesman Sergei Novikov insisted Tuesday that Iran has made no payments this month, and paid only a quarter of what was due last month.
Novikov told The Associated Press that Iran was to pay Russia $25 million a month for construction works at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran, adding that Iran has continuously dragged its feet on meeting the obligations.
AP contributed to this report.