Iran is an existential threat to Israel and the entire world, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday, the same day that Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned that as many as 30 countries could have technology that would let them produce atomic weapons "in a very short time."
Olmert, during his speech at the opening of the Knesset's winter session, said the "Lebanon campaign" underlined the threat a nuclear Iran would pose for the "region and the entire free world."
"Iran is deceiving the international community," he said. "It is dragging its feet and trying to buy time to complete its dangerous nuclear program. The Iranian threat is an existential threat to Israel; it is an existential threat to world peace."
Olmert said Israel was cooperating with the international community in trying to stop the threat and that the matter would be at the center of talks he would hold in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week and in Washington with US President George W. Bush next month.
Olmert said the international community was now at a "historic crossroads" and must prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability.
"There are no questions or hesitations," he said. "There is only a decision: The world must make certain that Iran does not possess nuclear weapons."
Olmert said recent events in North Korea illustrated the danger when "irresponsible and reckless regimes acquire nonconventional weapons for the purpose of threatening world peace." The Iranians were watching how the international community would deal with North Korea, and would draw the necessary conclusions, he said.
"The international community must be determined, clear and unequivocal in its actions," Olmert said. "There is no room for hesitancy, no room for compromise and no room for games. Determination and firmness is the only way to eradicate this danger to the world."
Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate's research department, told the cabinet on Sunday that Iran saw that the West was having difficulty building a coalition in favor of sanctions, and believed that "they have more time to play with."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the European Union would endorse efforts to pursue sanctions against Iran while keeping the door open to future negotiations to resolve the nuclear standoff with Teheran.
EU foreign ministers planned to discuss Iran's nuclear program in talks being held today.
Meanwhile, ElBaradei said at a conference in Vienna that more and more nations were "hedging their bets" by developing technology that is at the core of peaceful nuclear energy programs but could quickly be switched to making weapons. He called these states "virtual new weapons states."
ElBaradei's warning came amid heightened fears that North Korea's nuclear test and Iran's defiance of a UN Security Council demand that it suspend uranium enrichment could spark a new arms race, particularly among Asian and Middle Eastern states that feel threatened.
ElBaradei did not single out any country in his warning, but was clearly alluding to Iran and other nations that are working to develop uranium enrichment capability, such as Brazil.
Other nations, including Australia, Argentina and South Africa, have recently announced that they are considering developing enrichment programs to be able to sell fuel to states that want to generate electricity with nuclear reactors.
Canada, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Taiwan, Spain, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania either have the means to produce weapons-grade uranium, could quickly build such technology or could use plutonium waste for weapons. All are committed nonnuclear weapons states, and no one has suggested they want to use their programs for arms.
Japan also said it had no plans to develop atomic weapons, but it could make them at short notice by processing tons of plutonium left over from running its nuclear reactors. South Korea also has spent reactor fuel and was found a few years ago to have conducted small-scale secret experiments on making highly enriched uranium that would be usable in warheads.
Other countries considering developing nuclear programs in the near future are Egypt, Bangladesh, Ghana, Indonesia, Jordan, Namibia, Moldova, Nigeria, Poland, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam and Yemen, UN officials said.
There are five formally declared nuclear weapons states - the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain - and four others are known or thought to have such arms - India, Pakistan, Israel and now North Korea.
North Korea's nuclear weapon test a week ago sparked widespread condemnation and led the Security Council to agree on broad sanctions. Regarding Iran, the council plans this week to discuss possible selective penalties for Teheran ignoring its demand to stop enrichment by August 31.
"It's becoming fashionable for countries to try to look into possibilities of shielding themselves... through the possibility of nuclear weapons," ElBaradei said. "Another 20 or 30 would have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a very short time."