Hours before a second round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers was set to begin on Wednesday in Baghdad, Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterated that Israel has not ruled out any option as a means of stopping Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
"[U.S. President Barack] Obama and the representatives of the West are not naive," Barak told Army Radio, referring to the representatives of the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany who will be negotiating with Iran. "But they want to achieve progress, so they are willing to compromise," Barak added.
"Israel is demanding a complete halt to Iranian uranium enrichment," Barak declared, adding in an Israel Radio interview that the West, in stark contrast, was setting the bar too low and demanding too little.
"We mustn't blink, concede, or cave at the last minute," he stressed.
Barak went on to say that foot-dragging in negotiations between Iran and the West was problematic and that the talks must be held as frequently as possible. "North Korea also maintained dialogue with the West, but in the end it conducted nuclear tests," Barak said.
Commenting on the negotiations earlier this week between International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano, who visited Tehran, and Iran's nuclear negotiator, Barak said the results were to be expected. "The Iranians orchestrated things in such a way that when the Baghdad talks rolled around they would be able to tell the world powers that they were already coordinating the procedural details with the IAEA, and when Amano wanted to talk about the essential issues they could say that they were working those out with the world powers. It gives them a little wiggle room."
Earlier this week, Amano spoke with reporters in Vienna after holding talks with chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Tehran and said that an agreement would soon be signed. Amano said a decision was made to reach an agreement on the mechanics of giving the IAEA access to sites, scientists and documents it seeks to restart its probe into Iranian nuclear efforts.
It is believed that according to the agreement, Iran will allow IAEA inspectors to visit Parchin, a key military site near Tehran where IAEA officials suspect Iran has carried out explosives testing with a possible connection to nuclear weapons development.
U.S. officials, however, have stated that the agreement was not satisfactory. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the Obama administration wanted to see progress on both tracks — the IAEA agreement and talks with the West — simultaneously.
"An announcement of an agreement is one thing, but we are waiting to see if Iran will really allow access to all the sites. This agreement is only one facet of what Iran must do. We want to see a really concrete, serious discussion about steps that will demonstrate that we are moving in the right direction," Nuland said.
In a statement Tuesday, Robert A. Wood, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, said Washington appreciated Amano's efforts but remained "concerned by the urgent obligation for Iran to take concrete steps to cooperate fully with the verification efforts of the IAEA, based on IAEA verification practices."
"We urge Iran to take this opportunity to resolve all outstanding concerns about the nature of its nuclear program," Wood said. "Full and transparent cooperation with the IAEA is the first logical step."
Last week, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that "the pressure will be on the Iranians to demonstrate continued good faith." He called on Tehran to address its nuclear program "in concrete ways" with the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, and said sanctions and pressure on Iran would continue as well, spearheaded by the United States.
Israeli leaders are pessimistic about the effectiveness of the agreement with Iran. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office, the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry pointed out on Tuesday that the agreement only relates to monitoring and is not enough to halt Iran's nuclear progress.
"The problem is Iran's program is continuing unabated and needs to be stopped," a senior official said. "We have seen what happened with agreements between the IAEA and Iran in the past. Terms were agreed but facilities were still set up openly, like Natanz in 2002 and Qom in 2009. The latest IAEA report reveals Iran's scams and deceptions."
PMO officials also cited the case of North Korea which tested two nuclear explosions after signing an agreement with the agency. Syria, they say, also continued developing its covert nuclear program despite IAEA monitoring. "We must not give in to Iran, they are serial violators of agreements," one official said.
Echoing the concerns of Israeli officials, Maj. Gen. Itai Baron, head of the Military Intelligence research department, said on Tuesday that Iran was moving ahead with its nuclear program — enriching uranium and maintaining full operation of the facilities near Qom and Bushehr. Baron presented a comprehensive analysis of the situation to members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and said that Iran has trebled its pace of uranium enrichment to 20 percent. According to Baron, by the end of 2012, the amount of uranium Iran will have enriched to 20% will be enough for a single nuclear device, but it will take Iran a while to complete the remaining bomb-production stages.
Ahead of the Baghdad talks, Israel made it clear that in its view, Western powers must focus on three demands: a complete halt to uranium enrichment, transfer of existing enriched uranium out of the country, and the decommissioning of the Fordo underground enrichment facility near Qom. Israeli officials also said a timetable for these measures must be imposed.
On Tuesday, Barak said that "it appears that the Iranians are trying to strike a technical agreement that would create the illusion of progress in order to relieve some of the pressure ahead of the Baghdad talks and to stave off tougher sanctions."
"Israel believes that Iran must be faced with clear demands, so that there is no window or crack through which it can continue to advance toward a military nuclear program," he said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met his British counterpart William Hague on Tuesday and discussed, among other things, the Iranian issue. Lieberman told the British Foreign Secretary that the Iranians were trying to create "a calm and pleasant atmosphere, but their objective has remained the same — achieving nuclear capability."
Addressing the issue at the Negev Conference in Beersheba, President Shimon Peres said "I think we should walk hand in hand with the U.S. as they work toward imposing tougher sanctions and exerting heavy pressure on Iran."
Another reaction to the IAEA agreement and upcoming talks came from the east. Israel Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, currently in China on an official visit, met Vice President Xi Jinping on Tuesday. Gantz reminded Jinping, who is soon to become president, of China's significant influence on Iran. Jinping responded that China understands Israel's concerns regarding Iran and that the diplomatic track must first be exhausted before any other action is taken.
Meanwhile Tuesday, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported that Iranian scientists had inserted a domestically made fuel rod, which contains pellets of 20% enriched uranium, into the core of a research nuclear reactor in Tehran.
If true, the advance would be another step in achieving proficiency in the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Iran said in January that it had produced the first nuclear fuel rod, and that it had to find a way to make them because Western sanctions prohibit their purchase from foreign markets. This announcement could render the West's proposal — to supply Iran with fuel rods in exchange for its existing enriched material — obsolete.