Iran could have its first atomic bomb within four to six months if the regime in Tehran took the decision to go ahead and make a bomb, former IDF Director of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin said on Monday. Speaking at a press conference at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, a national security think tank which he heads, Yadlin said that Israeli's binary decision "whether to bomb or to live with an Iranian bomb" will come up at the end of summer this year. "In the past few years Iran has completed all of the necessary stages it needs to break out to a nuclear weapon. They have all the tools they need to produce a nuclear weapon once they decide to do so. The main reason they haven't constructed a bomb yet is that their breakout period is still too long. They want to be able to break out within a shorter time frame. They don't have sufficient numbers of the right centrifuges to break out sooner. The Iranians currently have over 10,000 centrifuges in two locations and it is quite possible they will make the decision to break out in 2013. This will necessitate an American and Israeli operation," Yadlin said.
Turning to Syria, Yadlin said the ongoing crisis there presents a unique opportunity for Israel to break the radical axis in the Middle East. The former intelligence chief made the comments at a special event to unveil his think tank's "2012-2013 Strategic Assessment."
According to Yadlin, "The anti-Israel radical axis has been fractured and is heading toward breaking point; at the center of the axis lies Syria, which is gradually crumbling, with the Sunni-Arab world turning against it."
"This is a positive development," Yadlin stated.
Tension with Syria has been on the rise after Israel allegedly struck a convoy carrying advanced air defense systems en route to Lebanon. While Israel has not confirmed it was behind the attack, it has repeatedly warned Syria not to allow game-changing arms to reach the hands of the Shi'ite terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon and said it would work to prevent any such transfers.
Yadlin told reporters that the destabilization of the Damascus regime is not necessarily a bad omen for Israel. In fact, he said, the potential overthrow of the regime "was a great opportunity for Israel and could be very promising if it takes Syria out of the radical axis."
"After President Bashar al-Assad falls, Syria — whatever its constellation may be — would be preoccupied with reconstruction; the large fighting force it will have at its disposal would be turned inward, not outward; it would be hard to imagine Syria turning toward armed conflict with Israel."
Yadlin commented that the alleged attack on the convoy would have damaged weapon systems that "we did not want in Lebanon." He added that the delivery of the systems was "in breach of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and went against a promise made by Syria to Russia." Yadlin said the U.S. condoned the alleged attack and "even the Russians understood that there was a problem."
The New York Times reported on Sunday that Israel targeted "SA-17 missiles and their launchers" that had been destined for Hezbollah. The paper, which relied on unnamed American officials for its report, also appears to confirm Syria's claim that a scientific research center was hit. According to the sources, the center may have suffered from collateral damage as a result of the attack on the weapon systems nearby. The paper said the West imposed sanctions on the center for its alleged role in developing unconventional weapons.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz arrived in the U.S. on Sunday for a five-day working visit as the guest of the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. The two are expected to discuss the various challenges both militaries face and the overall security situation in the Middle East, including Iran and the threat posed by Hezbollah and Syria.
On Sunday, Dempsey commented on Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi's recent visit to the U.S., which coincided with the alleged attack on Syria. Speaking with CNN, Dempsey said Kochavi "was in my office in preparation for a meeting with my counterpart from Israel, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and not in any way related to that incident that was reported." U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who was interviewed alongside Dempsey, refused to confirm whether the U.S. had advanced knowledge of the reported attack but said "we are concerned about the danger of sophisticated weapons like SA-17s and CBW, chemical and biological weapons, falling into the hands of terrorists. That is something we're concerned about."
Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij told Syrian television Monday that Syria did not feel compelled to retaliate because Israel's alleged action was actually a response to the "victory of the Syrian military over the armed gangs," implying that Israel was behind the popular unrest in his country.
Assad accused Israel on Sunday of trying to destabilize Syria by attacking a military research base outside Damascus last week, and said Syria was able to confront "current threats ... and aggression," state media said.
Assad made the remarks in a meeting with Saeed Jalili, Iran's national security council secretary, in the Syrian capital. It was his first reported response to the attack.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency quoted Jalili as reaffirming Tehran's "full support for the Syrian people ... facing the Zionist aggression, and its continued coordination to confront the conspiracies and foreign projects."
The Syrian president, Shi'ite Iran's closest Arab ally, is battling a 22-month-old uprising in which 60,000 people have been killed. Assad says the rebels are Islamist terrorists funded and armed by Turkey and Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states.
Turkey, which seeks the ouster of Assad and supports the opposition that is fighting against his regime, harshly criticized Israel regarding the airstrike in Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Sunday that Israel engaged in "state terror" and he suggested that its allies have nurtured wrongdoing on the part of the Jewish state.
"Those who have from the very beginning looked in the wrong direction and who have nourished and raised Israel like a spoiled child should always expect such things from Israel," Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News quoted Erdoğan as saying.
Ahmad Juma'a, one of the leaders of the Syrian opposition told Israeli radio on Sunday that the rebel groups welcome the alleged Israeli attack, saying it targeted weapon systems that were supposed to be used against the Sunnis in Syria. He further said Israel should impose more military pressure on the regime, Israel Radio reported
Syria's opposition leader flew back to his Cairo headquarters from Germany on Sunday to explain to skeptical allies his decision to talk with President Bashar al-Assad's main backers Russia and Iran.
The Russian and Iranian foreign ministers, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, portrayed Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib's new willingness to talk with the Assad regime as a major step toward resolving the two-year-old war.
"If we want to stop the bloodshed we cannot continue putting the blame on one side or the other," Iran's Ali Akbar Salehi said on Sunday, welcoming Khatib's overtures and adding that he was ready to keep talking to the opposition. Iran is Assad's main military backer together with Russia.
"This is a very important step. Especially because the coalition was created on the basis of categorical rejection of any talks with the regime," Lavrov was quoted as saying on Sunday by Russia's Itar Tass news agency.
Russia has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at pushing Assad out or pressuring him to end a civil war in which more than 60,000 people have died. But Moscow has also tried to distance itself from Assad by saying it is not trying to prop him up and will not offer him asylum.
Syrian state media said Assad received a senior Iranian official and told him Syria could withstand "threats ... and aggression" like an air attack on a military base last week, which Damascus has blamed on Israel.
Politicians from the United States, Europe and the Middle East at the Munich Security Conference praised Khatib's "courage." But the moderate Islamist preacher was likely to face sharp criticism from the exiled leadership back in Cairo.
Khatib has put his leadership on the line by saying he would be willing to talk to representatives of the Assad regime on condition they release 150,000 prisoners and issue passports to the tens of thousands of displaced people who have fled to neighboring countries but do not have documents.
Walid al-Bunni, a member of the coalition's 12-member politburo, described Khatib's meeting with Iran's foreign minister as a failure.
"It was unsuccessful. The Iranians are unprepared to do anything that could help the causes of the Syrian Revolution," Bunni, a former political prisoner, told Reuters from Budapest.
Bunni said the 70-member coalition is preparing to convene in full in Cairo, to be briefed by Khatib on his latest diplomatic moves and meetings in Munich.
Khatib, whose family are custodians of the Umayyad Mosque in the historic center of Damascus, is seen as a bulwark against Salafist forces who are a main player in the armed opposition.
He was chosen as the head of the coalition in Qatar last year, with crucial backing from the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of Khatib's colleagues on the coalition politburo, speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed to comments by Salehi and Lavrov on Sunday, a day after their meetings with Khatib, as evidence that they still backed Assad.
Salehi told the Munich conference where the round of talks took place that the solution was to hold elections in Syria — making no mention of Assad having to leave the country.