Iran closer than ever to weapons-grade uranium, ex-top defense official says

Zohar Palti tells ToI Israel must make ‘serious decisions’ on whether it is willing to attack Iran’s nuclear plants without US backing, notes issue tangled up with other challenges

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Former Mossad intelligence director Zohar Palti speaks with Times of Israel political correspondent Tal Schneider at an event in Ramat Hasharon, December 24, 2022. (Zman Israel)
Former Mossad intelligence director Zohar Palti speaks with Times of Israel political correspondent Tal Schneider at an event in Ramat Hasharon, December 24, 2022. (Zman Israel)

A former top defense official and Mossad intelligence chief warned Saturday that Iran was closer than ever to being able to produce weapons-grade uranium, and that Israel was capable of striking Tehran’s nuclear program even if not backed by the United States to do so.

Zohar Palti, the former head of the Defense Ministry’s political-military bureau and former intelligence director in the Mossad, said Iran is mere days or weeks away from enriching uranium to military-grade levels required for the production of nuclear weapons.

Iran “is at a more advanced level than I can ever remember when it comes to uranium enrichment,” Palti told Times of Israel political correspondent Tal Schneider at an event in Ramat Hasharon.

“They are days or weeks away from enriching uranium to 90 percent, which is military-grade,” he said.

Iran’s state media announced last month that it had begun producing enriched uranium at 60% purity at the country’s underground Fordo nuclear plant, in addition to enrichment to the same level at a plant in Natanz that it said had begun in 2019.

Enrichment to 60% purity is one short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Nonproliferation experts have warned in recent months that Iran now has enough 60%-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.

Palti noted that enrichment to such a level “does not mean they can immediately build a nuclear weapon.

“But it’s very bad, and we’ve never been closer to it,” he said.

The comments from Palti, who retired from a 40-year career in Israel’s security establishment several months ago, marked one of the first times he has publicly addressed the Iranian issue since stepping down.

Various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, on April 17, 2021. (Screenshot/ Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting-IRIB, via AP)

Palti said Israel has the military capabilities to attack Iran’s nuclear plants, noting that it need not necessarily await an American green light, but would need to make “serious decisions” regarding whether it wants to lead such an offense.

“I am not implying that Israel is capable, I am saying it is,” he said, while stressing the importance of coordinating with Washington.

“One of the things that the Americans appreciate most is our ability to make our own decisions, to ensure our security,” he added, referencing Israeli strikes on nuclear facilities in Syria and Iraq that it had carried out alone without active American support.

Palti noted that the heated political atmosphere did not lend itself to the sort of societal cohesion needed for Israel to deal with a wartime scenario.

“If we do reach such a scenario… it won’t be a matter of politics or religion. Lebanon has more than 100,000 rockets and Iran possesses precision-guided missiles. The Israeli home front will suffer… Israel will need to function as one fist,” he said.

Israeli F-35 fighter jets fly in formation during the military’s Blue Flag exercise in October 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

He added that policymakers did not have the luxury of dealing with the Iranian issue as disconnected from other regional security concerns.

“Iran is not a standalone issue,” Palti said. “Everything is connected. We can’t make progress on the Iranian issue without noticing what happens in our region, in the West Bank, on the issue of maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount and protecting the rights of minorities.”

Palti warned against inflaming tensions atop the Temple Mount, saying that Israel’s relationship with Jordan is its greatest strategic asset.

“The national security of each of the countries is intertwined,” he argued. It is in the interest of the State of Israel “for Jordan to be strong and unshakable. We have a strong and serious security system. The next IDF chief of staff, Herzi Halevy, will explain to the cabinet ministers what is at stake and what the meaning of violating the status quo on the Temple Mount is.”

He estimated that “incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t want to change the status quo on the Temple Mount” as well.

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