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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 December 2007, 17:18 GMT
Israel keeps up pressure on Iran
By Paul Wood
BBC Middle East correspondent, Jerusalem

Ehud Barak (right) and Chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen
Israel and the US have different assessments of the same data
Similar to the White House, the Israeli government does not like the US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran - and for the most part, is not buying it.

According to the Israeli press, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet: "Israel will make a powerful effort... to expose Iran's secret military nuclear programme."

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged that Iran had indeed stopped trying to build a nuclear weapon in 2003, as the NIE said.

But, he went on, Israel believed the weapons programme had resumed two years later.

"We cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the Earth, even if it is from our greatest friend," he added.

Israel and the US seem to be working off the same intelligence sources.

The Israeli view, therefore, represents a different assessment of the same data.

"Only time will tell who is right," Mr Barak said.

'Redefining chutzpa'

However, as convinced as they are that they are right, Israeli officials have clearly been knocked off balance by the NIE.

Mossad and the armed forces are now said to be going back over the accumulated intelligence of the past several years.

The aim is to see if their original assessment about Iran's nuclear programme is correct.

While Iran continues threatening to annihilate Israel, what American intelligence thinks about Iran's nuclear capability is irrelevant
Haaretz newspaper

Like US neo-conservatives, some on the Israeli right argue that the NIE was trying to make policy in the guise of a neutral and apolitical intelligence report.

"The NIE reads like a bureaucratic surgical strike against the military option," said the Jerusalem Post.

An editorial in the Post accused the writers of the NIE of "redefining chutzpa" - saying that the Iranians had successfully hidden a military nuclear programme from the US for years, while claiming Tehran was not hiding such a programme now.

The fact that the left-wing newspaper, Haaretz, takes a similarly hard line is evidence of the widespread fear in Israel about Iranian intentions.

The NIE, said Haaretz, did not rule out the possibility that Iran had acquired, or would acquire, nuclear arms from an outside source.

"While Iran continues threatening to annihilate Israel, what American intelligence thinks about Iran's nuclear capability is irrelevant," said the newspaper.

"The threats may be just a familiar background hum in the world's ears, but it is Israel's duty to persuade the world to listen.

"Therefore the question of whether Iran obtains a nuclear capability to destroy Israel in two years or seven years is not important," it concluded.

Isolating Iran

The Israeli government is, however, not blind to the obvious - that the chances of a US-led military strike on Iran have fallen dramatically.

Could Israel go ahead with a unilateral strike? The answer is probably not.

A military strike on Iran would be a very big task. The nuclear facilities are spread out and in some cases buried deep underground.

Iran's Natanz enrichment plant
Iran claims its nuclear development is aimed at producing energy

Hundreds of air defence targets would have to be hit first. And US forces in neighbouring Iraq would be vulnerable to retaliation by Iranian-sponsored militias there.

This last point means that even if Israel had the military means to carry out a unilateral strike, the US would veto it.

So Israel is concentrating now on the international community's push for economic sanctions to isolate Iran.

The aim of such sanctions is to stop Iran from enriching uranium, on the basis that the capacity to enrich uranium could be used to make nuclear fuel for military as well as civilian purposes.

The Iranians insist they have every right to develop a civil nuclear industry and will not submit to a more intrusive inspection regime to ensure that is all they are doing.

"The economic and diplomatic pressure is [therefore] likely to continue and even increase," wrote Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University.

Israel will be in the lead of efforts to maintain that pressure - while waiting for the prevailing intelligence assessment to change, as intelligence assessments sometimes do.

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