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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The British Sunday Times reported Sunday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered the IDF to prepare to attack Iran's nuclear facilities at the end of March 2006, after Israeli intelligence supposedly discovered a number of secret uranium enrichment sites that were disguised as civilian buildings.
The article claimed that "military sources" have revealed that "Israel's armed forces have been ordered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to be ready by the end of March for possible strikes on secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran."
The Sunday Times said that Israel had established an intelligence base in northern Iraq, and had even sent forces into Iran. The article also reported that ever since Sharon gave his order last week, IDF "special units" have been on high alert.
In response to the Sunday Times article, Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's foreign policy department, said in an interview to Israel Radio that while a military operation against Iran's nuclear facilities could not be ruled out, Israel was a partner in international diplomatic efforts to address the threat from Teheran.
Gilad denied the Times allegations that Israel planned to attack Iran in March 2006.
On Saturday, the same day UN nuclear watchdog chief ElBaradei received the Nobel peace prize, he appeared to warn Israel not to bomb Iranian atomic reactors.
"You cannot use force to prevent a country from obtaining nuclear weapons. By bombing them half to death, you can only delay the plans," he was quoted as saying by the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten. "But they will come back, and they will demand revenge."
The report said ElBaradei did not mention Israel, but it was clear he was referring to its increasingly open discussion over whether to protect itself by bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.
The report was in line with what ElBaradei said at a news conference in Oslo on Friday - that military force was not a solution to world concerns about the Iranian nuclear weapons program and could be counterproductive.
Israeli officials declined to respond to the report directly, but Sharon's spokesman Ra'anan Gissin did say, "Israel has no intention of launching an attack against Iran, definitely not before all diplomatic options have been exhausted."
He stressed that "Israel is not leading the campaign against Iran," but that that whole international community - chiefly the US and Europe - has been concerned and active on the issue.
He added that statements suggesting Israel will bomb Iran weren't helpful, in part because they "exonerate the Europeans" from taking action, "which is something we don't want to happen." He described the Europeans as "the ones who hold most of the cards to influence Iran."
ElBaradei and the IAEA have been seeking a negotiated settlement with Iran, in which inspections could prove whether it was still attempting to develop nuclear weapons. On Friday, he said it was too early to bring the matter to the UN Security Council, but that the next few months would be crucial.
He also said the world was losing patience with Iran in the drawn-out negotiations over its nuclear program.
"They are inching forward and I'm asking them to leap forward," ElBaradei told reporters in Oslo. He said he hopes outstanding nuclear issues will be clarified by the time he presents his next report on Iran in March, because "the international community is losing patience with the nature of that program."
In response to ElBaradei's comments, Iran's top nuclear official, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, said: "Iran is also losing its patience with them."
In a Saturday press conference, Aghazadeh said his country would enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel in Iran despite the international drive to curb such efforts.
"For me, there is no doubt that the process of producing nuclear fuel in Iran will be accomplished," said Aghazadeh, head of the Atomic Organization of Iran. "There is no doubt that we have to carry out uranium enrichment."
Aghazadeh, who is also the Iranian vice president, gave no date for when the processes would start, but stressed they would do so at some stage.
Iran has rejected a European offer to shift its enrichment program to Russia to try to break the deadlock over its nuclear program. The plan envisaged Moscow ensuring nuclear material would be enriched only to fuel levels and not weapons-grade levels for atomic warheads.
"Iran can't trust promises by Europeans that it will deliver nuclear fuel," Aghazadeh told reporters in Teheran. "There is no guarantee that the West will supply us with nuclear fuel."
Aghazadeh claimed Iran owns 90 tons of nuclear material that is currently being held in European countries which are refusing to release it.
In an apparent goodwill gesture, Aghazadeh said, "Iran would not inject uranium gas into centrifuges and won't carry out enrichment" during upcoming Iranian talks with European negotiators.
No date has been set for the talks between Iran and the EU3 - France, Germany and Britain - which broke off in August. They had been set to resume in early December but did not. The parties maintain they are committed to resuming negotiations.
Aghazadeh also said Iran plans to construct a 360-megawatt nuclear power plant based on domestic technology in Dar Khovin, in Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran.
Iran also wants to produce 2,000 megawatts of electricity by building nuclear power plants with foreign help, he added.
In his speech accepting the Nobel peace prize on Saturday, ElBaradei warned that humanity faces a choice between nuclear weapons and survival.
"If we hope to escape self-destruction, then I believe nuclear weapons should have no place in our collective conscience, and no role in our security," ElBaradei said in his acceptance speech. "The hard part is: How do we create an environment in which all of us would look at nuclear weapons the way we look at slavery or genocide, as a taboo and a historical anomaly?"
The 63-year-old Egyptian and the IAEA's Board of Governors chairman Yukiya Amano, from Japan, accepted the peace prize 60 years after the 1945 atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Six decades later and 15 years after the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear nightmare remains strong, ElBaradei said. The world community is deeply concerned about possible atomic weapons programs in Iran and North Korea, and terrorists' increasingly sophisticated efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
"Our security strategies have not yet caught up with the security threats we are facing," ElBaradei said. "The globalization that has swept away the barriers to the movement of goods, ideas and people but has also removed barriers that confined and localized security threats."
Smiling broadly, ElBaradei and Amano accepted their Nobel gold medals and diplomas from awards committee chairman Ole Danbolt Mjoes at a gala ceremony in the Oslo City Hall, which was decorated with 6,000 carnations and 3,000 orchids.
Standing together on the stage, they displayed their awards to the sound of applause from about 1,000 guests, including Norway's King Harald V and Queen Sonja, as well as Hollywood superstars Salma Hayek and Julianne Moore and activist musician Bob Geldof.
The award also includes 10 million Swedish kronor. ElBaradei said his portion will go to orphanages in his native Egypt, while the IAEA plans to establish a fund for cancer and nutritional research.
"At a time when the threat of nuclear arms is again increasing, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to underline that this threat must be met through the broadest possible international cooperation," Mjoes said.
Israel welcomed ElBaradei and IAEA as peace prize recipients when the news was announced earlier this fall.
Israel called it a warning to "rogue states" like Iran to give up their nuclear ambitions.
"Israel hopes that the agency, under Dr. ElBaradei's leadership, will know how to deal with the serious challenges it faces," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "First and foremost is removing the threat posed by irresponsible countries, particularly in the Middle East, who are breaking international commitments and abusing nuclear technologies in their possession."