International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief inspector Herman Nackaerts, center, looks on as Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, right, delivers a speech following talks at the Iranian permanent mission to the United Nations and other International Organizations in Vienna on Aug. 24. (Alexander Klein / AFP)
TEL AVIV — Iran’s unabated uranium enrichment drive, confirmed publicly last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is fueling frenzy in Israel among leaders urging a pre-emptive strike and others warning against precipitous action that could damage ties with Washington.
The IAEA’s Aug. 30 report on Iran’s implementation of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards and U.N. Security Council resolutions appears to validate Israeli claims that sanctions, inspections and diplomacy have not slowed the Islamic republic’s drive for nuclear weapons.
According to the report, Iran has grown its stockpiles of enriched uranium, introduced more efficient centrifuges, and has plans for up to 10 new enrichment and reactor programs, which may include new laser-enrichment technology.
The report concluded that information “indicating that Iran has carried out activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” has been assessed “to be, overall, credible.”
The latest IAEA estimates put Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium at 8.7 tons, including nearly 190 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, the level considered usable in a weapon. Compared with IAEA estimates from November, Iran managed to boost its stockpile by 723 kilograms, including 44 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent.
Given the stockpile, Israel estimates that Iran will have enough 20 percent enriched uranium to manufacture its first bomb by spring, after which even a sustained U.S.-led air campaign would prove limited.
While the IAEA report did not include a calculated time frame for weapon-grade capability, Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned it was now only a matter of time.
“This stockpile is large enough at the 20 percent level to indicate that Iran can produce significant amounts of weapons grade material over time,” Cordesman wrote Aug. 30.
Cordesman’s analysis of the IAEA report concluded that Iranian actions “raise growing questions about whether Iran will ever agree to meaningful disclosure, inspection and other verification measures covering its overall nuclear efforts.”
Rising U.S.-Israeli Tension
In the weeks before the IAEA’s findings, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak intensified pressure within the Israeli Cabinet and with senior U.S. officials to engage in pre-emptive, preferably U.S.-led action in Iran.
During a visit here last month by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, both Israeli leaders highlighted the urgency for pre-emption and sought to ease U.S. objections to prospective unilateral Israeli action. But the White House remains adamant against uncoordinated and precipitous action by Israel, warning that an Israeli attack would prove dangerous and counterproductive in undermining international support for sanctions.
Speaking in London on Aug. 30, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated U.S. objections to an Israeli attack, which would not only fail to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, but could also prompt Iran to reconstitute its weapons program.
“I don’t want to be complicit” in a premature Israeli strike, Dempsey was quoted as telling reporters in London when asked about the prospects of Israel dragging the United States into war with Iran in the near term.
In Aug. 31 editions, the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot reported on an unprecedented argument that took place during an Aug. 24 meeting in Jerusalem among Netanyahu; U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
According to the report, as Netanyahu harshly criticized President Barack Obama’s Iran policy and expounded on the dangers of dead-end diplomacy, Shapiro interrupted with: “Enough already.” According to the report, “The argument between the prime minister and the U.S. ambassador was an unprecedented deviation, and very undiplomatic.”
Neither Netanyahu’s office nor the U.S. Embassy commented on the report.
Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli defense minister, said the disagreement about attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities “has turned into ugly bickering, much of it disguised.”
In an Aug. 27 paper for the Israel Policy Forum, a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization here, Sneh underscored Israel’s legitimate fear of a nuclear-armed Iran and noted that “no responsible Israeli leader would allow such a nightmare to become reality.”
Nevertheless, he warned about threatened Israeli airstrikes in the run-up to U.S. presidential elections that expressly contravene White House demands.
“The damage of defying the president would be greater than the damage sustained by allowing the Iranian regime an additional few months of advancing toward acquiring the bomb,” Sneh wrote.