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(photo credit: Defense Ministry )
There is a 50 percent chance that sanctions will convince Teheran to halt its military nuclear program, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz told The Jerusalem Post Monday, in a rare optimistic assessment of the chances of stopping Iran without using force.
Mofaz's comments came a day before he was to leave for Washington to head up Israel's delegation at crucial US-Israeli strategic talks on Thursday that will center on the Iranian nuclear threat. The US team will be led by the No. 2 man at the State Department, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns.
"I don't think that it is right today to talk about military options as long as you have not exhausted all the other options, especially sanctions. I give the sanctions more than a 50% chance [to succeed]. Not 10% or 20%. Otherwise we would not be investing so much effort in it," Mofaz said.
He said chances were good that if the sanctions regime were escalated, Iran would start reassessing its nuclear program by the end of the year.
"We are seeing the beginning of this," Mofaz said, "with financial and economic officials [in Iran] complaining that their moves are being stopped as a result of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's polices."
While some in Jerusalem are gearing up for the possibility that US President George W. Bush will order a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities next summer, just before his term ends, Mofaz said diplomatic efforts must be allowed to run their course. There is no telling what an attack on Iran could unleash in the region, he said.
While pointedly not ruling out the military option, and saying that the need to keep all options on the table would be discussed with the Americans at Thursday's talks, Mofaz said a military strike could ignite the entire region.
If the US launches an attack, the Iranians would see Israel as a target, he said. "The Iranians are a ballistic power in every sense of the word, and have missiles that could reach every city in the West," he said.
The former defense minister and chief of General Staff said an Iranian rocket barrage could lead Hizbullah to fire their missiles, "and you don't know what the Syrians would do, or Hamas. Before you take military action, you have to ensure that you have exhausted all efforts."
He said that three points would be stressed regarding Iran during the discussions in Washington: The need to create a united front against the Iranian nuclear program; the importance of strengthening sanctions against Teheran, with an emphasis on financial measures; and the fact that all options remain on the table.
Turning to Israel's northern border, Mofaz called for opening a "secret channel" of communication with Syria. He said Israel needed to verify the "seriousness" of President Bashar Assad's peace overtures to prevent a potential war.
"This is necessary due to the reality," he said. "And this is a step that has many advantages and very few disadvantages."
He would not say whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had already initiated a secret channel with Syria or whether he planned to do so, although there are reports the prime minister is using Turkey to gauge Syria's intentions.
While Mofaz believed Syria was not interested in going to war, its military, he said, had raised its level of alert along the border and was investing unprecedented amounts of money in obtaining new weapons.
He said there was an increase in "fuel fumes" along the border that could be set ablaze by a "small match" or miscalculation during a terrorist attack initiated by Hizbullah or Syria.
"It is enough that there be a terrorist attack along the Lebanese or Syrian border and we respond and open fire," he said. "They could interpret this, due to the high level of tension, as an attack on their sovereignty and it could set off a whole new wave [of violence]."
Israel should not ignore a country that called on it to open peace talks, Mofaz said. "I don't think we need to make declarations, ceremonies or announcements about peace talks, but we should check it out - check out its seriousness."
A secret channel could build trust between the countries, clarify intentions and reduce the level of tensions, he said, adding that the secret channel would need to be open "continuously," and not just once a year.
"I am not talking about meetings between defense ministers or foreign ministers," he explained, "but between two figures who are in direct contact with the two leaders and can represent them."