Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday that Iran almost crossed the nuclear weapons threshold during the past summer, but at the last moment decided to divert its enriched uranium for civilian use instead.
In an interview with British daily The Telegraph published on Wednesday, Barak said that had Iran decided to use the uranium for military purposes, Israel's "moment of truth" would have arrived, referring to Israel's stated intention to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons even if it had to use military force to do so.
According to Barak, diplomatic efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program will ultimately fail and Israel and its allies will have to decide whether to attack Iran's nuclear facilities "next year." Barak told The Telegraph, "To tell you the truth, out of long experience of the Middle East, I am extremely skeptical about the chances that it [sanctions] will lead the ayatollahs to sit together at any point in the foreseeable future and decide to give up their intention to go in the footsteps of Pakistan and North Korea and turn into a military nuclear power.”
The Telegraph quoted Barak as saying Israel was close to making that decision last summer when Iran, at the last moment, transferred one third of its medium-grade enriched uranium to civilian industries. Barak said Iran's decision not to move forward with nuclear weapons production delayed Israel's decision on the use of military force by “eight to 10 months,” and had Iran not used its uranium for civilian purposes, Israel may have considered opting for a military strike even before the U.S. presidential elections in November.
In the interview, Barak pointed out that Israel had a right to act on its own and any “operation against Iran” would be less dangerous now than when Iran crossed the nuclear threshold. He said that Tehran has so far stockpiled 6.8 tons of enriched uranium, 189 kg of which has been enriched to 20 percent purity, which is one step closer to the level needed to produce weapons-grade material. He reportedly said that in August, 38% of the uranium was converted to nuclear fuel rods for a civilian research reactor.
According to The Telegraph, Barak insists Tehran's move does not constitute a genuine change of heart. The fuel rods can be converted back to enriched uranium and according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran is still operating around 9,850 centrifuges to enrich more uranium.
Regarding a possible Israeli strike on Iran, Barak told The Telegraph “Basically, it’s about the question of when they come into this zone of immunity, where no Israeli surgical attack, probably somewhat later not even an American surgical attack, can delay them significantly. That’s the issue that bothers us.” When asked when Iran will reach the “zone of immunity,” Barak replied, probably “next spring or early summer.”
In another interview with a French daily on Tuesday regarding the Iranian issue, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that if Israel would strike Iranian nuclear facilities, a sigh of relief would be heard in Arab countries soon after the operation ended. "Five minutes after, contrary to what the skeptics say, I think a feeling of relief would spread across the region," Netanyahu said.
The prime minister, who is scheduled to visit France this week to participate in a ceremony commemorating the deadly attack outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in March, said, "Iran is not popular in the Arab world. Far from it. Not only governments in the region, but also their citizens understand that a nuclear Iran would endanger them as well."
Meanwhile, an Egyptian news agency reported that Israeli naval ships passed through the Suez Canal on Monday on their way to a drill in the Red Sea. According to the report, the INS Eilat and INS Kidon set sail from Haifa port and crossed the Suez canal under heavy Egyptian security.
The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported on Tuesday that Egyptian security forces in the Sinai Peninsula apprehended two terrorist cells — one of five men and the other of four men — that planned to launch attacks on tourist targets in southern Sinai and Sharm el-Sheik. According to the report, which was based on information from an Egyptian security official, all of the suspects confessed to planning the attacks, which were to have been launched during the Eid al-Adha holiday.