Israelis see chink of light in Iran talks

Veteran Israeli observers have sounded more optimistic in recent days about the chances of a breakthrough in the nuclear talks between the international community and Iran.

At the same time, there are alarming new assessments about the speed with which Iran can build a launch-ready nuclear bomb.

On Monday, former senior official in the International Atomic Energy Association, Olli Heinonen, said that Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build an atomic weapon within two weeks and has, “in a certain way”, already reached the point of no return in its nuclear programme.

Last week, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security published report estimating Iran’s nuclear “break-out” capability at between four and six weeks from the moment the regime decides to push for all-out enrichment.

This did not take into account the “weaponisation” process (converting the weapons-grade uranium to an operational warhead) that most analysts put at around a year. This would leave Israel and the West very little time to assess whether an agreement with Iran is feasible.

A number of Israeli experts believe, however, that a deal is indeed possible. Notable among them are former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who said last Thursday that an “hour of opportunity” currently exists for an agreement, likening the current pressure on the regime to that which led Ayatollah Khomeini to end the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

According to a report this week in Haaretz, Major-General Aviv Kochavi, commander of the IDF’s Intelligence Branch, wrote a personal briefing paper for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month in which he said that Iran has been undergoing a period of intense political and strategic change since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani earlier this year. He adds, however, that this has yet to be reflected in its nuclear policy.

Maj-Gen Kochavi’s predecessor, former general Amos Yadlin, expressed similar views in an interview last week with New Republic in which he said: “We should let [Rouhani] enjoy the benefit of the doubt.” However, he warned against allowing the Iranians to “drag it out” for a lengthy period, saying that the period in which Israel can use military force to set the nuclear programme back by five years will last for only a few more months.

The public line taken by Israeli leaders, from Mr Netanyahu downwards, remains that Iran has yet to prove in any way that it is prepared to end its military nuclear programme. Conflicting reports from Tehran on whether Iran has stopped enriching uranium to 20 per cent seem to back this up.

At the same time, behind closed doors, there is more openness from senior Israeli officials about the possibility of a deal. The unofficial policy now is that “a diplomatic deal would of course be the best possible outcome for Israel, much more preferable than having to launch a strike. We still have to see whether Iran is capable of delivering.”

Last updated: 5:45pm, October 31 2013