Israel has abandoned plans for an imminent attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities after new intelligence said Tehran had diverted part of its uranium stockpile to a medical research reactor.
Defence officials told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that Israeli intelligence had gathered evidence that Iran had used part of its enriched uranium stockpile.
The quantity of material involved was enough to delay efforts to produce a nuclear weapon by eight months.
The Israeli conclusions support findings from the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) that half of Iran’s 20 per cent enriched uranium had been diverted to produce power rods for a reactor developing isotopes to treat cancer.
Iranian officials have attempted to portray the transfer of the material as a gesture to address the concerns of its critics. While the Israeli leadership remains convinced it is engaged in an urgent race to prevent the Islamic Republic from gaining a nuclear bomb, it has indicated that it cannot launch an attack as diplomats examine evidence that international sanctions could yet curtail the programme.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiant address to the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September has been seen in Iran – and elsewhere – as something of a climb down.
In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign minister, said Israel was deterred by the knowledge that aggression would come at a “high price”.
“If the Israelis had wanted to attack us, and if they could have done so, they would have done so long ago,” he said.
The Israeli prime minister, who had previously dismissed as absurd any suggestion that Iran was pursuing its nuclear programme for civilian ends, accepted the IAEA’s findings.
But close aides said that a deadline of early 2013 must loom for Iranian co-operation with international diplomacy.
“We remain very, very concerned by Iran’s enrichment of uranium, which is continuing at unprecedented levels,” an anonymous Israeli official from within the prime minister’s camp said.
While Iran has repeatedly insisted that its is developing its nuclear programme for peaceful purposes, it has refused to grant international requests to delay its uranium enrichment or grant IAEA officials access to all of its nuclear development facilities.
Washington has so far preferred economic and political sanctions over military threats but according to a former US official, a joint military operation with Israel was still on the table.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, David Rothkopf said plans for a series of ‘surgical strikes’ on Iran’s nuclear facilities had been drawn up.
The only point of disagreement, according to Rothkopf, is the “red line” that would trigger this military response.
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