Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday warned that Iran was still moving forward with its nuclear weapons program, one month after elections that saw the relatively moderate Hasan Rouhani swept into the presidency. Sanctions against the Islamic Republic must be strengthened, he said, along with a credible threat of military action against Iran.
“A month has passed since the elections in Iran, and Iran is going full steam ahead on developing nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “Now, more than ever, given Iran’s progress, it’s crucial to strengthen economic sanctions against Iran and to provide a credible military option.”
Iran is “expanding and refining” its ability to enrich uranium and is also developing a plutonium reactor, the prime minister said, giving Iran “two routes to develop nuclear bomb material.” Citing the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program, Netanyahu said Tehran posed not only a threat to Israel, but to the “entire West and East.”
A recent Pentagon report said Iran could test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching US shores as early as 2015.
Netanyahu called on the international community to back up Israel’s key demands: that Iran stop all enrichment, remove already enriched radioactive material to another country, and close the “illegal,” heavily fortified nuclear reactor at Qom.
Netanyahu’s statements come amid reports that the US plans to up the pressure on Iran over its renegade nuclear program, and at the same time seek to enter into direct talks with the Islamic Republic on the nuclear issue.
Immediately after Rouhani was elected on June 14, US officials held a series of discussions about Iran with Netanyahu aides, assuring Israel that economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure would not be relaxed, Haaretz reported on Sunday, citing senior US officials with knowledge of the talks.
Because Rouhani “looks friendlier toward the West” than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israel was afraid that “pressure on Iran will go down,” an anonymous official was quoted as saying. “It’s legitimate to be concerned, but we have told the Israelis we intend to judge the Iranians according to their actions and not according to their words. We need to see a meaningful change in the Iranian attitude… We will not ease the sanctions if Iran does not take action to stop 20 percent enrichment.”
Uranium enriched to 20 percent is necessary for nuclear weapons production, and Iran’s continuing program to enrich the radioactive material to this level has been a key sticking point in negotiations. The same US official said that sanctions would actually be increased and that the dire economic conditions that have been created in Iran were a key factor in Rouhani’s surprise electoral victory.
At the same time, the US is seeking to open direct talks with Iran, according to US sources cited by the Wall Street Journal.
The Obama administration is “eager to quickly test” Rouhani, who, despite some hard-line statements, has suggested through intermediaries that he seeks more transparency for Iran’s nuclear program and would be more open to international discussions and relations with the West than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Friday’s report said.
“We are open to direct talks, and we want to reinforce this in any way [we can],” a senior US official said, adding that the administration sees “words that indicate Iran might be going in a different direction.”
A meeting of the P5+1 negotiating countries (the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France and Germany) is scheduled for Tuesday in Brussels to map out the countries’ diplomatic approach for the near future. The Western countries hope to schedule a new round of nuclear talks with Iran for September.
In line with Netanyahu’s Sunday statements, Channel 2 reported Friday that Israel is planning to pressure the US to take a tougher stance with Iran because the government feels that the window for successful military action by Israel against Iran’s nuclear facilities could close as early as this winter.
Netanyahu is about to launch a fresh effort at “public diplomacy,” aimed at securing “increased pressure on Iran,” led by the US, notably including the revival of “a real military threat” if the Iranians don’t halt their nuclear drive, the TV report said.
If the prime minister’s effort fails, “Netanyahu will have to make a decision in the next few months” over “whether to attack Iran by winter.” The report stressed considerable support for a resort to military force within the cabinet, and concluded, “This could happen.”
Rouhani is scheduled to assume the Iranian presidency on August 3.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.