Israel does not accept the bottom line of the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and will continue its efforts to halt the Iranian nuclear program, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made clear in a special session of the security cabinet convened on Sunday.
Government officials quoted Olmert as saying that Iran was continuing its activities to acquire two necessary ingredients for nuclear weapons: working on its missile capabilities and working on enriching uranium.
Olmert said Iran was continuing its efforts to develop ballistic missiles and its research and development activities to support nuclear weapons. "No one disputes these facts," he said, "and therefore there is no logical reason to change the assessment that we have had until now."
Olmert said that even the NIE had said that Iran had a nuclear weapons program up until the end of 2003, and that there "was no positive information explaining what happened to that program."
Olmert, who was briefed on the contents of the NIE report when he met US President George W. Bush last month in Washington the day after the Annapolis meeting, said that Iran was aggressively trying to enrich uranium, and according to the NIE would have enough enriched uranium to make a weapon by 2010.
Israel, Olmert said, would continue to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency to expose the Iranian plan to develop nuclear weapons, despite the limitations on the IAEA activities.
Olmert said that even the NIE admitted that the international pressure on Iran was effective and that, for this reason, Israel was calling for the upgrading of the international pressures on Iran, and for its increased international isolation until it fully implemented its obligation under the UN Security Council and totally froze all of its uranium enrichment activities.
Olmert said the ultimate responsibility to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran rested on the shoulders of the international community, and first and foremost on the US.
But, he said, Israel, which is the subject of continuous calls for annihilation from Teheran, "cannot rest and must continue to work for greater international action on the Iranian question."
To this end, it is widely expected that Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will do their utmost, relying on the most up-to-date Israeli intelligence information, to convince Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen that Iran has not abandoned its nuclear weapons program, when they meet with him Monday. Mullen, who arrived Sunday for a 24-hour visit, is the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to visit Israel in a decade.
Israeli sources said that from Jerusalem's point of view, whether or not Iran halted a weapons program four years ago was not the point. For Israel, the critical point of no return is when the Iranians have independently mastered the nuclear technology, even if they have not yet taken the political decision to put together a bomb.
For the US, the point of no return is when the Iranians make that political decision to assemble a weapon, when they renew their "nuclear weapons program." And therein lays the key difference in positions.
This difference, the sources said, stemmed from the US and Israel's different realities. The US is not convinced that Iran, as a "nuclear threshold state," is a threat to global security. Even as a nuclear threshold state, Iran could reach a modus vivendi with the rest of the world on issues of key importance: keeping the Straits of Hormuz open, keeping the price of oil down and ensuring stability with Iraq and Afghanistan.
Israel's position, on the other hand, is that Iran as a "nuclear threshold state," is already a threat to its security and regional stability, even before it makes a decision to assemble a bomb.
Israel's position was that the ability of Iran to projects its power in the region before it had mastered the nuclear cycle was quite different from the ability of Iran to project its power after it had independently mastered the nuclear cycle. Its ability to intimidate its neighbors and other players in the region would increase greatly once it had nuclear capabilities, even if it had not made the decision to build a bomb.
If the Annapolis process is built on the assumption that the "moderate" states in the region will give legitimacy to a Palestinian leader who wants to compromise with Israel and accept a two-state solution, the position in Jerusalem is that those states will be in less of a position to do so with a "nuclear threshold" Iran breathing down their necks.
If, as the Americans repeatedly say, the current battle in the Middle East is between the moderates and the extremists, the extremists - in Israel's view - will receive a huge boost if Iran masters the nuclear technology.
Sources familiar with the issue in Jerusalem said that one of the most surprising things about the NIE report was that so many people were surprised by it, and that it should have been evident for months that the US and Israel had divergent views about Iran.
The first indication came in the spring of 2006 when US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley publicly backed a compromise solution proffered by the Russians, which Israel rejected, whereby Russia would enrich uranium for Teheran on Russian soil.
Another sign of divergence was Israel's belief that any engagement with the Iranians would be tantamount to giving them a "certificate of legitimacy." That was not the American position.
Also in recent months, there has been a difference of opinion about whether Iran needed only to suspend its uranium enrichment before negotiations could begin, or whether it had to completely halt and dismantle its enrichment capabilities.
During the days when former UN ambassador John Bolton was involved in the issue, the terminology used was "suspension, cessation and dismantlement." US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, watered down the terminology, and all that was discussed in recent months was an Iranian uranium enrichment suspension, with even the words "a long-term suspension" omitted.
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