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Defense Minister Ehud Barak broke Israel's official silence on a draft plan to ship one load of Iranian uranium abroad for enrichment, saying Thursday night there was a need to halt all uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.
"This agreement, if it is signed, will set Iran's accumulation of enriched material back by about a year," Barak said during a speech at President Shimon Peres's Israeli Presidential Conference at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.
"However, if they don't stop enrichment, then the only result will be that Iran has gained the legitimacy to enrich uranium on its soil for civilian purposes, in clear opposition to the interlocutors' and our understanding that their true plan is to attain [military] nuclear capability," he said.
"So, I repeat, what is required is a halt to enrichment in Iran, not just an export of the enriched material to build fuel rods," the defense minister said.
Under the Vienna-brokered draft agreement, presented on Wednesday after three days of talks between Iran and world powers, the Islamic Republic would be required to send 1.2 tons of low-enriched uranium - or about three-quarters of its current inventory - to Russia in one batch by the end of this year.
After further enrichment in Russia, the uranium would be shipped to France and converted into fuel rods that would be returned to Iran.
One of the reasons that Israeli officials have been so reticent to discuss the plan is that it is only a draft, and Israel is not entirely clear about what it entails.
Nevertheless, Barak's comments gave voice to concerns that at best the plan would set back Iran's nuclearization program by nine months to a year, since it would take that long for the Iranians to enrich the amount of uranium equal to the amount they are sending abroad. Currently it is believed that the Iranians could achieve "breakout" potential, meaning they could produce enough uranium for a bomb if they made the decision to do so, within a year. The current plan would likely push back the estimates by another nine months.
But from an Israeli perspective, there was another problem as well: that this might be seen - as IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei has already said - as a major breakthrough, which would take the heat off Teheran and slow down international momentum to draw up a menu of crippling sanctions against the regime.
Barak's comments reflect the belief that the plan does not address the three fundamental issues that have been enshrined in various UN Security Council resolutions on Iran: that all Iranian enrichment activity be suspended until confidence is restored that the nuclear program is for civilian purposes only; that there be increased verification from the IAEA supervisors; and that there be transparency, meaning questions and explanations to a wide array of outstanding questions posed by the IAEA.
Barak, in his statement, said what was needed was a complete halt to uranium enrichment, "a short and limited time" for engagement with Teheran, "immediate, tough sanctions with no illusions," and "keeping all options on the table."
Emily Landau, a senior research fellow and director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, is skeptical about how much the proposed deal contributes to the efforts of the international community to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear state.
"First of all, the most important achievement of this deal is the fact that a certain amount of enriched uranium that is already in Natanz [nuclear facility in Iran] will be transferred to Russia, then to France, then back to Iran. So the stock will be reduced.
"But there is actually together with that at least implicit acceptance for Iran's enriching uranium. Not only will Iran continue to enrich uranium - and Iran has clearly stated that in six months to a year, it will most likely be able to regain the amount of enriched uranium that they sent out of the country - but the very fact that the deal is based on this enriched uranium that Iran enriched in violation of signed UN Security Council resolutions is a message to Iran that this is legitimized," Landau said.
She added that there is an additional question of what will happen to the fuel rods that return to Iran from France - can Iran secretly enrich them further or not?
"There is somewhat of a difference of opinion, as some people think that it will not be possible while others think that it is a possibility, which is an additional problem," Landau said.
In Teheran, meanwhile, Iran's deputy parliament speaker on Thursday dismissed the plan, the official IRNA news agency reported.
The remarks by Muhammad Reza Bahonar were the first reaction in Teheran on the proposal.
"The United States demanded Iran ship uranium abroad, in return for getting fuel back," Bahonar said, according to IRNA. "But Iran does not accept this."
Iran's parliament will not vote on the draft plan, and Bahonar does not speak for the government, which is to decide on the matter.
But it's unclear if his comments reflect high-level resistance to the deal or the opinions of influential politicians in Iran.
There has been no response so far to the offer from Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, or from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The proposal may meet resistance by some Iranian leaders because it weakens the country's control over its stockpiles of nuclear fuel and could be perceived as a concession to the United States, which took part in the Vienna talks with France and Russia.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that although some in Iran may disagree with the proposal, the US government was waiting to hear the Islamic Republic's final decision on Friday.
"I'm sure there are a lot of voices in Teheran right now, but we're going to wait for that authoritative answer tomorrow," said Kelly, who has called the draft agreement "a very positive step."
Iranian officials have reiterated that the country will not give up its right to uranium enrichment, suggesting it plans to keep its enrichment facilities active, an assurance against fears that the fuel supply from abroad could be cut off.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials downplayed an interaction between Israeli and Iranian delegates at a Middle East disarmament conference in Cairo last month.
According to Israeli officials, Meirav Zafary-Odiz, a representative from the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, took part in a multilateral discussion also attended by an Iranian delegate, Ali Ashghar Soltanieh.
While Israeli and Iranian delegates are often in the same room at international gatherings, what made this exchange different was that the Soltanieh directed a question to Zafary-Odiz.
Still, the Israeli official said, the exchange was insignificant.
Israel Radio, moreover, quoted an Iranian nuclear official as denying there was any exchange whatsoever.
Jacob Kanter and Jamie Romm contributed to this report.â€¢