As the International Atomic Energy Agency prepares to meet again this week to discuss the situation in Iran, Israel has told Washington it is prepared to act alone and launch a strike similar to its attack on Iraq in 1981 when its air force bombed a nuclear reactor near Baghdad.
In an apparent attempt to increase pressure on the IAEA and United Nations to limit the development of Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israel’s defence minister Shaul Mofaz has made what sources have described as a warning of "unprecedented severity".
At the time of the Iraq attack, Israel defended its actions, claiming it had dealt a devastating blow to Saddam Hussein’s goal of developing nuclear weapons. Israel views Iran in much the same way as it did Saddam’s Iraq.
Mofaz set out his government’s position last week during a visit to the United States stating that "under no circumstances would Israel be able to tolerate nuclear weapons in Iranian possession".
He said that in the course of the next year Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons would "reach the point of no return".
Mofaz’s warning has been reinforced by Meir Dagan, the head of Israel’s secret services, Mossad, who claimed that the spectre of nuclear weaponry in Iran represented the greatest threat Israel had faced since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948.
Addressing Israel’s foreign affairs and defence committee, he added that he thought Iranian nuclear capabilities would pose a threat not only to Israel but to Europe as well. He also said that the Iranians were developing ground-to-ground missiles with a range of thousands of kilometres.
Dagen dismissed Iran’s claims that it had no plans to equip its missiles with atomic warheads. He said the reactor at Bashir in Iran was far too large to be used solely for generating electricity. He added that Iran was close to completing the building of a uranium enrichment facility and it would have the potential to produce 10 nuclear bombs a year.
The Israeli warning follows recent statements by Iran to the IAEA claiming that it is temporarily suspending its uranium enrichment programme and insisting that its atomic energy programme is only for peaceful purposes.
But Israel rejected Iran’s claims and took its case directly to the Vienna-based international watchdog where foreign affairs minister Silvan Shalom met with the director of the IAEA, Mohammed El Baradei. Shalom said the latest IAEA report "clearly indicated continuous Iranian violation over the past 20 years of its commitments to the international community regarding the nuclear issue and its programme to develop nuclear weapons".
During the meeting, Shalom called on the agency and the international community to act to guarantee that Iran abandons all of its efforts to enrich uranium.He argued that inspection of Iranian facilities should be rigorous and continuous and added that the issue should also be addressed by the UN Security Council.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also weighed into the debate during talks last week with the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome. "I spoke at length with Berlusconi about the danger posed by Iran... It’s the number one danger," he said. Sharon called on Italy to appeal to the rest of Europe to take a stronger stand against Iran.
"I hope that Italy keeps Iran in very close check, because it seems to me that the European Union position has been lightweight up until now," he said.
Sharon’s concerns are shared by the United States. President George Bush said last week that the UN nuclear agency must hold Iran accountable under international non-proliferation agreements.
His appeal came amid divisions between the US and some European leaders over Iran’s nuclear programme, in advance of the key meeting of the IAEA governing board in Vienna.
Bush administration officials maintain that Iran has not been completely forthcoming to European envoys about its nuclear programme.
But the US administration has given key European foreign ministers credit for going to Tehran last month and getting a commitment from the Iranians to, among other things, stop enriching uranium.
At the same time, Washington continues to insist that Iran has been hiding a nuclear weapons programme and is concerned that this week’s IAEA board meeting will end without the matter being referred to the Security Council.
The issue was on the agenda at a recent State Department meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who made the trip to Tehran last month along with his British and French counterparts.
Then Powell took issue with an assertion by European Union chief diplomat Javier Solana that Iran has been "honest" in its dealings with the international community on its nuclear programme.
"I wouldn’t have gone quite as far," Powell said. "The Iranians have provided us with a great deal of information. It confirms what the United States has been saying for some time, and which we believe, that the Iranian nuclear development programme was for more than just the production of power; that it had intent to produce a nuclear weapon. And I think that the information that has come forward establishes that," he said.
Fischer sounded a similar theme in his remarks in Washington, saying recent Iranian actions had been "quite positive" but that close scrutiny was needed.
"We are moving forward based on realism, and realism based on transparency. I think we are moving in the right direction. But we must go into the details now.