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If the Iranian nuclear deceleration represents the truth, it is a significant step toward its nuclear disarmament, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz said Wednesday, a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that his had country successfully enriched uranium for the first time.
"If we assume that everything they said is true, they have taken another step towards achieving independent nuclear capability. It should occupy everyone's agenda, which it does. Our reactions do not change things since the voices are already widely heard," Halutz told Army Radio.
The chief of staff also referred to recent reports claiming that a nuclear strike against Iran was in the making. "I suggest not to go too far here, not to seek Israeli answers and to refrain from offering them as well. I am not at all certain that if we examine Iran's targets, Israel would occupy the number one slot," he said.
"In any case," Halutz added, "the Iranians are not there yet. Time is of the essence in the dialogue with Teheran and I anticipate changes throughout this process."
In a nationally televised speech on Tuesday, Ahmadinejad called on the West "not to cause an everlasting hatred in the hearts of Iranians" by trying to force his country to abandon uranium enrichment.
"At this historic moment, with the blessings of God Almighty and the efforts made by our scientists, I declare here that the laboratory-scale nuclear fuel cycle has been completed and young scientists produced enriched uranium needed to the degree for nuclear power plants Sunday," Ahmadinejad said.
Earlier in the day, the Iranian president told an audience that included top military commanders and clerics in the northwestern holy city of Mashhad that "Iran has joined the club of nuclear countries."
Israeli officials said that if the Iranian announcement were true, it meant that Teheran had essentially mastered the "rudimentary research and development capability" needed to create nuclear weapons, but it did not mean that the Iranians had "mastered the nuclear fuel cycle."
Israel has said that if the Iranians' drive to the bomb is not stopped, they would master the nuclear fuel cycle by the end of the year - the point which Israel considers to be the "point of no return."
"This is a reason to be concerned," one defense official told The Jerusalem Post. "The whole Iranian issue concerns us and we are keeping close tabs on any new development on that front."
The head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, was heading to Iran on Wednesday for talks aimed at resolving the standoff. The timing of the announcement suggested Iran wanted to present him with a fait accompli and argue that it cannot be expected to entirely give up a program showing progress.
Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful member of Iran's ruling clerical regime, said the breakthrough means ElBaradei "faces new circumstances."
But while Israeli officials said they were concerned with the new development, Military Intelligence (MI) was not overly surprised. Iran, MI recently predicted, had not long ago obtained sufficient UF6 gas to enrich uranium. According to the intelligence assessment, even though Iran announced that it had started the enrichment process, it did not yet have a sufficient amount of uranium to build a nuclear bomb - a process that could take another few years.
The enrichment process is one of the most difficult steps in developing a nuclear program. It requires a complicated plumbing network of pipes connecting centrifuges that can operate flawlessly for months or years. The process aims to produce a gas with an increased percentage of uranium-235, the isotope needed for nuclear fission, which is much rarer than the isotope uranium-238.
MI is, however, concerned that Iran, alongside its overt civilian nuclear program, could also be simultaneously developing a secret, military nuclear program. If there is a separate military program, it could be far more advanced than the civilian program.
Iran, military officials also recently revealed, has in its possession cruise missiles, bought from Ukraine in 2002, which are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead with a 3,000-kilometer range.
Israeli officials said that Tuesday's Iranian announcement underlined the growing gap between international diplomatic efforts to stop the Iranians and the technological progress Teheran is making.
The officials said that the announcement should be a wake-up call to the international community to come out very quickly with a UN Security Council resolution that imposes real economic and academic sanctions on the Iranians.
The Iranian announcement that it has enriched the uranium did not mean it was too late to stop the program, one official said, but added that more firmness from the international community was needed than has been demonstrated up until now.
According to MI, the point of no-return would be when Iran obtains independent research and development capabilities allowing the Islamic republic to race towards the bomb without external assistance. This is expected to happen in the coming months. There are, however, senior defense officials who believe that even after Iran obtains independent R&D capabilities it could still be thwarted militarily and even diplomatically.
One Israeli official said that Tuesday's announcement might be part of Iran's tactic to "turn down the international heat." According to this school of thought, the Iranians are hoping that by announcing enrichment capability, some nations will say that there is no point in confronting the Iranians, and that the best tactic now would be to reopen negotiations with Teheran in order to get it to voluntarily suspend further enrichment and development. Israel's concern is that this would buy the Iranians more time to clandestinely continue their nuclear development.
The Iranians do not believe that by announcing an enrichment capability they will bring down the wrath of the world, the official said. "The way they look at it, if they say they have mastered the ability to enrich uranium, and say they are now willing to return to the negotiating table, many countries may be willing to go along."
The official said that the announcement seemed like a bargaining tactic meant to weaken the international front against Iran, and get the issue out of the UN Security Council and back to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Geneva.
Israel, IDF sources said, was also unhappy with the movement on the diplomatic process against Iran. While MI predicts that sanctions will only kick in by September, one member of the IDF General Staff told the Post this week that it was still possible to stop Iran through diplomatic action.
"Diplomatic action can prevent Iran from getting nuclear power," the officer said. "We need to be patient and we should let the worldwide diplomatic process take its course."
Meanwhile Tuesday, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he would not engage in "fantasyland" speculation about a possible US attack on Iran, though he said the Bush administration was concerned about Teheran's nuclear ambitions.
Rumsfeld declined to comment on Iran's claim that it had successfully enriched uranium for the first time. "I'd rather wait and see what our experts say about it," the defense secretary told reporters shortly after the announcement from Teheran.
The White House on Tuesday criticized the Iranian government after Ahmadinejad's announcement.
"Defiant statements and actions only further isolate the regime from the rest of the world," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One.
"This is a regime that needs to be building confidence with the international community," McClellan said. "Instead, they're moving in the wrong direction. This is a regime that has a long history of hiding its nuclear activities from the international community, and refusing to comply with its international obligations.
"We'll talk with the rest of the Security Council members and others about the next steps," McClellan said.
AP contributed to this report.
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