Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to meet with US President George W. Bush at the White House Monday morning and focus on the Iranian nuclear threat, as both Iran and Israel have ratcheted up their threatening rhetoric.
Iran begins installing 3,000 new centrifuges
In response to Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh's warning in Friday's Jerusalem Post that Israel must be ready to stop Iran "at all costs," Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said Sunday that his country's Revolutionary Guards would strongly and immediately retaliate against any Israeli attack.
"If the Zionist regime commits such stupidity, the response by the Iranian military will be swift, strong and crushing," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Muhammad Ali Hosseini. "Iran will take no longer than a second to respond."
Last week, Sneh said Israel "was not advocating Israeli preemptive military action against Iran" but that "even the last resort is sometimes the only resort."
Olmert, en route to Washington, seemed to be gently rebuking his new deputy defense minister, saying there was "a need to speak carefully on the Iranian issue."
At the same time, the prime minister reiterated a line he has used repeatedly in recent weeks when talking about Teheran's nuclear program. Olmert said that while he was not against reaching a diplomatic compromise with Iran over the issue if it meant Iran would not be able to secure nuclear weapons, Iran would have no incentive to compromise if they had no reason to fear the consequences of not compromising.
Sneh's comments, meanwhile, have ignited a flurry of responses, including the Iranian UN Ambassador Muhammad Javad Zarif's submission of a complaint to Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Security Council on Friday.
Sneh has also been blasted by several fellow lawmakers, with Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On calling his comments "irresponsible rabble rousing."
Others, including a legislator from Sneh's own Labor Party, said the comments may have been made to prompt Treasury officials to up defense spending in the 2007 state budget.
"Sneh became deputy defense minister and the week after he is issuing doomsday warnings. That seems like pretty typical behavior for someone who is trying to scare up more funds," said one Labor MK.
Sneh declined to comment on his statements to the Post.
However, Sneh made very similar comments regarding the Iranian nuclear threat to the Post on September 11, before he became deputy defense minister.
Regarding dealing with Iran, Sneh said at the time that Israel must prepare to "do it alone, and we have to prepare for that properly." He said then that he was not advocating a preemptive strike, but rather, "I'm saying that we have to be prepared, because if you are not prepared, then the options don't exist."
Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 to destroy then-president Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program. While Israel neither acknowledges nor denies possessing nuclear arms, it is thought to have about 100-200 nuclear warheads, according to a 2006 study by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.
Hosseini downplayed the possibility of such an attack, suggesting that the current Israeli bluster stemmed from its government's "very fragile" political situation.
"The situation and capability of the Zionist regime are far too small to threaten Iran," Hosseini said. Hosseini also said that Iran had begun installing an additional 3,000 centrifuges.
In October, Iran stepped up uranium enrichment by injecting gas into a second network of 164 centrifuges. Iran produced a small batch of low-enriched uranium - suitable as nuclear fuel but not weapons grade - in February, using its initial cascade of 164 centrifuges at its pilot plant at Natanz.
Earlier this year, Teheran said it planned to install 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz by year's end but that it would take 54,000 centrifuges to fuel a reactor.
The issue is also expected to be the centerpiece of conversation when Olmert meets US Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday afternoon. Cheney has been a key figure in the US administration's effort on the Iranian issue. Olmert met on Sunday night with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
While Olmert is expected to issue a joint statement with Bush and to take a few questions, there will be no media opportunity after the meeting with Cheney.
Olmert is also scheduled to hold separate meetings Monday with both Congressional leaders and Jewish congressmen, although the names of those taking part in the meetings have not been released.
On Tuesday, he is scheduled to fly to Los Angeles to address the closing session of the United Jewish Communities' annual General Assembly.
Olmert is expected back in Israel midnight Thursday.
AP contributed to this report.