Defense Minister Ehud Barak became the first senior Israeli official to make a public statement on the recent Iran nuclear draft deal, warning Thursday that it could constitute granting the Islamic republic legitimacy to enrich uranium.
The agreement would delay Teheran's ability to make nuclear weapons by sending most of its known existing enriched uranium to Russia for processing.
"Regarding Iran, we heard today about an enrichment deal. 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 Facing Tomorrow conference at Jerusalem's International Convention Center. "However, there's a catch. 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."
"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," he said.
"A short and limited time must be set for engagement," added the defense minister, stressing that "we're not in a position to tell the Americans whether this [engagement] should take place."
He also called for "immediate, tough sanctions with no illusions."
Not for first time, Barak also said that "no option should be removed from the table" in dealing with the Iranian threat.
Regarding the northern front, Barak said since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel's deterrence had been strong, but that Hizbullah had increased its rocket arsenal three-fold, saying that it now had over 40,000 rockets that "can cover most of Israel."
"Israel views severely the build-up of rockets and any attempt to bring into Lebanon [missile] systems that disrupt the current balance there," he added.
Israel Radio reported earlier Thursday that Israeli assessments regarding the deal under negotiation with Iran is that it benefits mainly the Islamic regime as it allows Teheran to "buy time."
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu convened his seven-member inner cabinet to mull Israel's strategy regarding the deal, which, if accepted by Iranian leaders, would delay Teheran's ability to make nuclear weapons by sending most of its known existing enriched uranium to Russia for processing.
However, Iran's deputy parliament speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying Iran "doesn't accept" the offer, drummed up at a nuclear meeting in Vienna.
Bahonar's remark marks the first response on the draft in Teheran. But he was not speaking for the government, which is yet to decide on the matter.
Iran proposed the deal on the presumption that in exchange for transferring what it considers to be a relatively small amount of uranium to be enriched abroad, it would gain legitimacy to enrich uranium on Iranian soil, officials reportedly told Israel Radio.
The unnamed officials were quoted as saying that they believe that under the cover of this legitimacy, Teheran would be able to pull off almost any trick, as Iran knows that international supervision is not efficient enough to reach every underground facility and every hidden batch of centrifuges.
In this way, the officials maintained, Iran hopes to gain more time and support from the public in Western countries. But Israel fears that at a certain point, the Islamic republic could return to enriching uranium at full capacity because according to the deal, the arrangement is limited in both time and amount.
The Israeli assessment is that the Americans are supporting the deal although they are not naÃ¯ve and are aware of the Iranian deceptiveness, the radio station reported. But Washington is apparently interested in taking confidence-building steps and in engaging diplomatically with Iran until this option is exhausted. The administration of US President Barack Obama is taking this path to ensure that eventually, it will be able to demand extreme measures and supervision of Iran to prevent it from attaining a nuclear military capability, Jerusalem officials reportedly said.
According to the report, officials have refrained from publicly commenting on the subject because the government's policy was to maintain contact at the inter-governmental level, and not issue public statements that could potentially harm the complicated American campaign.
Also speaking on Israel Radio, Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom, a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies and former director of the Strategic Planning Division in the Planning Branch of the General Staff, explained that the understandings reached between Iran and the West meant the Iranian nuclear threat would not be imminent.
"As a result of the initial agreement, the urgency of the threat will be reduced, because the biggest concern was that Iran would take all of the low-grade uranium in its possession, a considerable amount, and enrich it to a military grade within a short time, enabling it to build a nuclear bomb," Brom said. "The amount [of uranium] that would be left in Iran [after it transfers uranium to be enriched abroad] would not be sufficient to build a bomb."
When asked how the deal may affect the possibility of a military strike on Iran, Brom predicted that "the US and Israel will not strike Iran's nuclear facilities in the near future, but the military option is not completely off the table."
Brom said that while there was "good reason" not to trust the Iranians, he believed it was "important to give this a try and see if Obama's new attitude will work."
"Israel's policy should be waiting to see if this path works, while continuing to improve its intelligence on Iran," he concluded.
AP contributed to this report