Israel Taking Sharp Measures Over Iran

JERUSALEM — Questions about Iran’s nuclear thrust are tumbling out, echoing around the world in several directions.

– Is Iran now "either very near or in possession" of enough low-enriched uranium to produce one nuclear weapon, as a senior U.S. diplomat warned?

– Will the six world powers involved in the Iranian nuclear dossier — the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — accept the proposal submitted by Iran to the UN nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as its response to Western concerns and threats of further sanctions over its nuclear program?

– What was the purpose of Monday’s clandestine visit to Moscow by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

– Did Israeli intelligence agencies have a hand in the interception of the missing cargo ship Artic Sea on suspicion that the vessel was secretly carrying a sophisticated Russian air defense system bound for Iran?

In contrast to Iran’s claim that its nuclear program is devoid of military purpose, an international consensus is building that Iran has conducted a process of "weaponization."

But at precisely what stage would that constitute a global threat?

The Israeli stance has been made plain by national security adviser Uzi Arad: A red line would be crossed "as soon as Iran has the ability to complete the cycle of nuclear fuel production on its own; the point at which it has all the elements to produce fissionable material." There need not be, in other words, actual making of a bomb.

Israel argues it isn’t its problem alone. Iran’s refusal to answer outstanding questions about its nuclear program requires greater scrutiny of Iran’s intent, say Israeli leaders.

In a report last month, the IAEA said that Iran continues to enrich uranium in violation of UN sanctions and that the possibility of a military purpose to Iran’s nuclear program could not be ruled out.

The Israeli concern was assuaged somewhat by the declaration in Vienna this week by Glyn Davies, the new U.S. envoy at IAEA headquarters: "We have serious concerns that Iran is deliberately attempting, at a minimum, to preserve a nuclear weapons option.

"Iran is now either very near or in possession already of sufficient low- enriched uranium to produce one nuclear weapon if the decision were made to further enrich it to weapons-grade," Davies said, adding that this moved Iran "closer to a dangerous and destabilizing possible break-out capacity" — the point at which it could create a bomb.

The new blunt U.S. statement adds weight to the promise by the six powers that they will seriously consider the Iranian proposal to break the long stalemate between the IAEA and Iran over Iran’s nuclear intentions.

"We hope that what is contained in that response is a serious and substantive and constructive reply," said U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice. "We will deliver a coordinated response at the appropriate time," she added.

Israel will be scrutinizing how far the world is prepared to go to ensure that Iran’s nuclear capability is contained.

But it is not only watching.

Initially, Israeli officials adamantly denied that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made a secret trip to Moscow on Monday. A statement from the prime minister’s bureau said Netanyahu had spent the day touring a security facility within Israel.

But now, it has been confirmed that the Prime Minister did indeed make an urgent one-day trip to the Russian capital, leasing a small private jet belonging to an Israeli businessman.

Netanyahu’s mission is being termed by Israeli sources part of an ongoing diplomatic effort to convince Russia not to equip Iran with its high-grade S- 300 anti-aircraft missile system. That Russia did not give up on the long- mooted deal is reportedly what prompted Netanyahu’s surprise trip.

"These are matters of war and not matters of peace," one government source told Haaretz daily. If deployed, the sophisticated Russian missiles would make a strike against Iranian nuclear sites very difficult.

When taxed on whether it would contemplate a military pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, Israel has never ruled that out. The standard Israeli response is "all options are on the table."

According to Haaretz, Netanyahu’s talks with top-level Russian security and political leaders also dealt with Russia’s reluctance to back more sanctions against Iran.

In June, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is understood to have told Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that, due to the global economic crisis, Russia was seriously considering going through with the missile deal, contrary to its long-standing declared policy not to do so.

What remains shrouded in uncertainty is whether the all-out Israeli diplomatic effort to get Russia to backtrack on the missile sale also relates to claims about the interception of the Maltese-flagged Artic Sea with a 15- strong Russian crew. The reports speculated an Israeli connection to the mysterious vanishing of the ship in July. It was eventually found by the Russian navy in the middle of August off the shores of West Africa.

According to the unsubstantiated reports, Israel told Russia it knew what the ship was secretly carrying. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has dismissed the claim that S-300 missiles were on board.

Israel has been concerned that Iran, through its proposed dialogue with the world community, might successfully be playing for time, containing further international sanctions while continuing to pursue the nuclear strategy Israel has itself successfully employed — a policy of deliberate ambiguity.

Though it is widely believed to have a serious stockpile of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, Israel’s standing declaration has been that it "won’t be the first" to introduce nuclear weapons into the region.

Pointers to how the Iranian nuclear imbroglio might evolve could come as early as next week when the annual UN General Assembly gets under way in New York.

One thing is clear. Netanyahu and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will not be eye-balling one another. The Israeli leader had originally intended to be at the Assembly for Tuesday’s address by U.S. President Barack Obama.

But on learning that the Iranian President would attend, Netanyahu postponed his arrival by a day. He did not want to be seated at "no more than arm’s length from a Holocaust denier and someone who has called for the wiping of Israel off the map," a spokesman for the Prime Minister said Thursday.

Arrayed according to the English alphabet, Iran and Israel sit cheek by jowl in the Assembly, with only two nations separating them.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.