Israel defence minister warns it may soon be too late for Iran military strike
Israel's defence minister, , has said the moment is approaching when any military intervention to halt Iran's nuclear programme will come too late, in a strong indication that the Jewish state is closer than ever to authorising action.
But the veteran politician also publicly acknowledged the extent of debate and disagreement within Israel's political and military echelons over the merits of a military strike.
He told an international conference in Herzliya, , on Thursday: "The world today has no doubt that the Iranian military nuclear programme is slowly but surely reaching the final stages and will enter the immunity stage, from which point the Iranian regime will be able to complete the programme without any effective intervention and at its convenience."
At that point it would be impractical to attack, he said.
"Dealing with a nuclearised will be far more complex, far more dangerous and far more costly in blood and money than stopping it today. In other words, those who say 'later' may find that later is too late," Barak said.
Sanctions recently authorised by the international community were "a step in the right direction", he said. But they needed to be intensified and "if sanctions do not achieve the desired effect of stopping the military nuclearisation programme, action must also be considered".
Speculation that Israel is actively considering a strike on Iran's nuclear installations has intensified in recent months. Barak's comments came as the US defence secretary Leon Panetta declined to deny a column in the Washington Post suggesting that he believes Israel would launch a military strike in April, May or June this year.
"No, I'm just not commenting," Panetta said in response to questions about the article by David Ignatius. Washington had indicated its concerns about a military action by Israel, he added.
The US says that sanctions must be given time to work. But some in Israel believe that in the months needed for stiffer sanctions to have the necessary impact, Iran could reach a "zone of immunity".
Barak said the issues had been and continued to be debated "with directness and frankness that has not always characterised the discourse in the past". He said that in his decades of experience, no subject of national defence had been discussed "for so many hours with the participation of all the parties that need to be involved".
But, he added, there was "no guarantee that we can remove all the disagreements among us", indicating that a consensus on whether to attack may not be reached. His comments, prefaced by a list of historical decisions by the state of Israel to embark on military action, appeared to refer to an internal rather than international consensus, but it was not made clear.
Earlier, Moshe Yaalon, Israel's vice-premier and minister for strategic affairs, said the threat of military action needed to be credible. "As long as the Iranians are not convinced there is the political stomach to execute an attack, they will continue," he said. "Today the Iranian regime thinks the stomach is not there, whether as a military attack or sanctions."
Despite the hawkish rhetoric, some observers believe that Israel's political leaders are encouraging fevered speculation about the state's intentions with the aim of reinforcing the credibility of the threat of military action, rather reflecting the likelihood of an actual attack.
Yaalon raised the stakes of Iran's nuclear ambitions, claiming for the first time that Tehran was attempting to develop a missile with a range of 10,000km, capable of targeting the United States.
Israel's director of military intelligence, Major General Aviv Kochavi, said Iran had enough material to create four nuclear weapons. It would take a year from when the order was given to produce a bomb, and another year or two to weaponise the devices, he said.
Iran had come under "great pressure" in the recent weeks, he added, and sanctions were beginning to show results. "The stronger the [pressure], the greater the potential for the regime – which is worried first and foremost about its survival – to reconsider," he said.
In contrast to the drumbeat tone of most conference speakers, the former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy told the conference: "I said last year I thought we were winning the war against Iran." He said he was more confident of that this year.
Sanctions were having an impact. "The value of the Iranian rial has depreciated by 50% in a very short time, food prices are rocketing sky high, there's a run on the banks‚ all this is part of the daily turn of events, the daily life in recent weeks," he said.
"This has been one of the main features which has caused the Iranians to do what they swore they would never do, to reinstate the Iranian nuclear issue on the agenda in the discourse between Iran and the world."
Things were moving forward, he said. "Are they moving fast enough? They never move fast enough. But we're not doing all that bad. We have to look at the sunny side up of the situation."
The Iranians had been forced to come back to the table, he said. "The game is up and they know it … This is a new situation, and this should be pressed to advantage."