Iran has stepped up its nuclear enrichment process, which advanced in 2009 “beyond where we would have wanted it to be,” Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, head of Military Intelligence’s Research Division, told MKs during a Tuesday meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Iran has more than two tons of low-enriched uranium, enriched to 4 percent, which is more than necessary to run a nuclear reactor geared for benign purposes.
“[Iran] has begun enriching to 20%, and when it completes that, it will have completed 90% of the process necessary for a nuclear device. Uranium for a nuclear device must have 90% enrichment,” he said.
Iran “did not progress during 2009 as it planned, but still progressed beyond what we would have wanted,” Baidatz added.
The revelation of the existence of an alternate nuclear plant at Qom, he continued, constituted a setback for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, he said, the regime was continuing to operate at the site despite the demands made by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The centrifuges at Qom, he noted, were three to four times more efficient than those at the second plant at Bushehr.
Baidatz rejected claims that recent political unrest in Iran could lead to a significant upheaval.
“There is a wide gap between the protests that we have seen, and the collapse of the regime,” argued Baidatz. “If anybody expects the regime to collapse soon, they will be very disappointed.”
Meanwhile, he said, Iran continues to strengthen its ties to Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas, adding that “Syria is supplying Hizbullah with military hardware it never dared pass on before.”
Speaking after Baidatz, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the committee that international willingness to impose sanctions on Iran was being consolidated.
“There is less and less difference in countries’ understandings regarding Iran,” he told the MKs.
A key issue on which there is not yet agreement, he said, is sanctions on fuel. Netanyahu said he believed that such sanctions were the key to making any sanctions package “effective,” but noted that while the US Senate was considering fuel sanctions, international forums tended to oppose them.
Netanyahu rejected claims that sanctions could strengthen domestic support for Ahmadinejad’s regime, but echoed comments made earlier by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when he told MKs that “it will still take a few weeks or even months” before sanctions were ready to be imposed on Teheran.
“The schedule of the [United Nations] Security Council can take anywhere from weeks to months; it can be a considerable amount of time. Russia unofficially already understands the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran, and it is not something they wish to see come to pass, but the question is whether Russia will join sanctions,” Netanyahu added.
The prime minister insisted that Israel was “not looking for any flare-up with Syria. The talk about us preparing an attack against Syria is not grounded in reality. It is Iran that is trying to create that impression.”
During the same hearing, an argument erupted when opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu faced off on possible final-status arrangements in the West Bank.
Tensions rose when Livni attacked Netanyahu’s plan to retain the Jordan Valley as a part of any final-status agreement. Netanyahu responded that an “Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley is a must-have condition in order to ensure the security of Israeli citizens, and thus to maintain the peace itself.”
Livni, in turn, slammed his policies as creating “a lack of faith in Israel” throughout the world.
According to one opposition MK present at the closed-door meeting, it was not only Netanyahu who debated Livni: A senior Kadima member was taken aback by Livni’s statement that Kadima supported a withdrawal from the Jordan Valley, and asked her how she could make that statement when Kadima had never discussed the issue.
During his briefing to the committee, Netanyahu reasserted that “we are interested in renewing the process with the Palestinians. I told that to both [US President Barack] Obama and Clinton.”
“There is an Israeli, Egyptian, American – and I believe Palestinian – interest in renewing the talks,” said Netanyahu. The prime minister’s perspective was supported by earlier comments from Baidatz, in which the general said PA President Mahmoud Abbas was “interested in reaching an agreement, but his flexibility is limited on key issues.”
Netanyahu also told MKs that it was Hamas that was dragging its feet and preventing any deal regarding captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.
Also Tuesday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman referred to Iran during a meeting with visiting New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, saying that Israel was concerned the international community would push off sanctions at the United Nations until a later, undetermined period.
Lieberman said Israel should change its public posture toward the Iranian issue, and request that the US adopt the sanctions model it imposed on Cuba and apply it to Iran to bring down the government.
The US has imposed a near-total commercial, economic and financial embargo on Cuba since 1962.
“Consensus and wide agreement are important, but in the final analysis,
the important thing is how to stop the Iranian nuclear program, and
with this [Cuban] model, the US can do it alone,” Lieberman said.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.