US gets Barak to backtrack and deny Iran has reached nuclear point of no-return
By suddenly stating, contrary to all informed estimates, that Iran’s nuclear arms program has not yet reached the point of no return, Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak implied that Israel was in no hurry to strike its nuclear facilities, a message for which Washington has been angling for months.
In a Kol Israel interview from Turkey, Thursday, Feb. 16, the defense minister’s pronouncement contradicted every reliable evaluation, including those of Military Intelligence Chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi on Feb. 2 and his predecessor Amos Yadlin who wrote on Jan. 26 that Iran had passed the point of no return four or five years ago. But his words were a perfect fit for the recent assertions by US President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that Israel had not yet made up its mind to attack Iran.
Kochavi’s information was detailed: He reported that Iran had amassed 10 kilos of 20-percent enriched uranium and four tons of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent. In his view, nothing remains to stop Iran building a bomb but a decision by its ruler. Once taken, Iran’s nuclear program could produce its first bomb or warhead by the end of this year or early 2013 and four or five by 2015.
The defense minister backtracked on a second issue: While noting that Iran was scattering or burying its nuclear facilities to “impede a surgical strike,” he avoided his previous estimate that no more than three to six months were left before all those facilities had been hidden in what he himself called “zones of immunity.”
Before these changes in outlook, Barak was indirectly criticized by Obama administration officials for underlining the mortal threat to Israel of a nuclear Iran. One official complained, “Israelis are looking at the problem too narrowly.”
The defense minister also toed the Washington line on the show Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put on Wednesday by inserting a home-made 20 percent grade nuclear fuel rod in a research reactor in Tehran. Listing its nuclear successes, the Iranians also claimed they had installed 3,000 fourth generation centrifuges in Natanz to speed up enrichment to 20 percent.
The US State Department spokesperson dismissed Iran’s claims as “not terribly new and not terribly impressive” – implying there was no cause for rushing into military action.
Barak put it this way: “They are describing a situation that is better and more advanced than the one they are in, in order to create a feeling among all the players that the point of no return is already behind them, which is not true.”
debkafile’s military and intelligence sources recall that, when two years ago, Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials boasted they were on the way to self-production of nuclear rods and ending their reliance on Russia, American and Israeli insiders belittled the claim. Two years on, Iran has indeed made the leap and is also advancing rapidly on the plutonium-based weapons track.
If Iran can supply all the nuclear fuel rods for fueling the Bushehr reactor, which is now running on recycled fuel rods from Russia, it will be able to use these rods to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs or warheads.
Why the defense minister suddenly changed course is unclear. It is also hard to know if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu okayed his radical departure from Israel’s information strategy on the nuclear Iran issue.
What is apparent, debkafile’s sources report, is that the change of tune coincides with the reports circulating in Washington and Jerusalem that the US and Iran have agreed to resume nuclear talks shortly.
Those sources point to an article in the New York Times by Dennis Ross, President Obama’s former senior adviser on Iran, entitled “Iran is ready to talk.” Ross is too experienced to go out on a limb and make this sort of statement without being sure of his facts.