United Nations nuclear inspectors were in Iran Monday. Their top priority is to seek answers about the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program.
Iran claims its nuclear activities are for civilian energy use only. But the United States and other western nations have serious doubts about that. And there are rumors that Israel is considering a pre-emptive military strike aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
The arrival of UN inspectors in Tehran follows a series of high-level meetings between Israel officials and President Obama's National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon. He's thought to have delivered a fairly straightforward message. If you're planning pre-emptive military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities: don't do it. At least not yet.
That's the gist of what several US officials have been saying publicly. The Pentagon's top general, Martin Dempsey, Sunday appeared on CNN. And he said "it's not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran."
In response, Israeli officials are being coy.
"It's not prudent now? Does this mean that it's prudent later?" asked Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who gave a briefing Monday in Jerusalem. The event was sponsored by The Israel Project.
Both the US and Israel have long said that all options for preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon must remain on the table. But are the two allies really walking hand-in-hand? Meridor declined to answer that question directly as well.
"Sometimes we have to stand alone and we have done it in the past. Sometimes we can do it alongside many others. This time, I think, the world as a whole needs to see Iran stop this project," Meridor said.
The Israelis often point out that Iran's nuclear program is a rare example of international consensus. Not just Israel, they say, but the US, European and Asian countries, along with much of the Arab world, have all expressed deep concerns about the prospect of Iran building a nuclear weapon. But the saber-rattling from Israel is probably loudest. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is thought to be in favor of launching military strikes sooner rather than later, before Iran reaches the so-called "zone of immunity."
Deputy Prime Minister Meridor was asked how long it might take Iran to reach that point of no return. He said setting arbitrary deadlines isn't helpful. Iran needs to be stopped. Period.
"We all know that if nothing is done, they will be there. Iran feels now the sanctions. They feel the value of the rial going down. They feel the pressure in their markets. And I think that we should continue with that. Without defining the exact date. They don't yet have a bomb and they shouldn't have it."
For its part, Iran has responded to international pressure by cutting off oil sales to France and Britain. Monday, the official Iranian news agency said that embargo could be extended to other European countries as well. Iran's military says it's moving forward with exercises this week aimed at boosting its air defenses near nuclear sites. The Islamic Republic also just announced new progress on its nuclear activities. It said thousands more centrifuges to enrich uranium have been put online.
Such defiant moves could be seen by Israel as reasons to act on its own, and soon. Military analyst Michael Clarke at the Royal United Services Institute in London said the other timetable at play here is the US presidential election.
"There is a sense, unspoken, that anything that happens this year, that is Israeli-inspired, will be very, very hard either for an American president or an American candidate to condemn," Clarke said. "So, there is a sense that this is a critical year. Objectively, not much has changed. But the timetable has ramped up."
A big unanswered question is whether the Israeli air force — acting alone — has the capability to delay Iran's nuclear progress for long. There's no shortage of military experts who have serious doubts.
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