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Israel digs in heels on military action, warns revived nuke deal won’t thwart Iran

Liberman says Tehran will have a bomb in five years at most and Bennett previews fights with allies as rhetoric ratchets up ahead of talks in Vienna to restore JCPOA

In this photo released by the U.S. Air Force, an Israeli Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle flies in formation with a U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer over Israel as part of a deterrence flight, on Saturday, October 30, 2021. (US Air Force/Senior Airman Jerreht Harris via AP)
In this photo released by the U.S. Air Force, an Israeli Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle flies in formation with a U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer over Israel as part of a deterrence flight, on Saturday, October 30, 2021. (US Air Force/Senior Airman Jerreht Harris via AP)

Israeli leaders indicated Tuesday that a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers would not stop Jerusalem from taking action to quash Tehran’s atomic ambitions, vowing to stand its ground ahead of talks on reviving the frayed 2015 pact.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman predicted that a deal would not keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon within years, warning Tuesday that Israel may need to take action whether or not it was backed by allies.

The comments came after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel would maintain its freedom of action and not be bound by a reborn Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), vowing not to repeat the policies of his predecessor and hinting at a possible rift with the United States.

“The most conservative estimate is that with an agreement, Iran will have nuclear [capability] within five years,” Liberman said at the Institute for Policy and Strategy counter-terrorism conference at Reichman University in Herzliya.

Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is “enough for one nuclear bomb at least,” Liberman said.

“We must make a decision alone,” he added.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a press conference, presenting new reform on housing, at the Ministry of Finance offices in Jerusalem, on October 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking at the same conference earlier in the day, Bennett described Iran’s nuclear program as being in a “very advanced stage” and said he expects “disagreement with our greatest of friends.”

“Either way, even with the return to an agreement, Israel is, of course, not part of the agreement. Israel is not bound by it,” he said.

The warnings came as world powers prepare to resume negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program in Vienna next week. The 2015 JCPOA curbed Iran’s enrichment activity in exchange for sanctions relief, but many key provisions expire in 2025.

Iran has been steadily growing its uranium stockpile in defiance of the pact since the US pulled out of the deal in 2018.

A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency this week said Iran’s stockpile, as of November 6, was many times in excess of the limit laid down in the agreement with world powers. Such highly enriched uranium can be easily refined to make atomic weapons.

Israel has staunchly advocated against an American return to the accord, which Jerusalem believes is far too weak and ultimately paves the way to an Iranian nuclear weapons. Israeli officials have instead called for a different, harsher diplomatic approach, backed up by the credible threat of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

“There’s no doubt that a diplomatic solution is preferable, but alongside that we need to have on the table the use of force, which is diplomacy by other means,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said at the conference, referring to a famous quote from military strategist Carl von Clausewitz.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz reveals the location of an alleged Iranian drone base off the southern coast of Iran during a speech at Reichman University, on November 23, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

In July, Bennett, Gantz and Liberman agreed on a NIS 58 billion ($18 billion) defense budget for the coming year, of which nearly NIS 2 billion ($620 million) is designated for the military’s efforts to confront Iran.

The funds, as well as additional billions that are expected to be apportioned, are meant to be used to purchase the equipment and munitions that would be needed to carry out an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. These are spread throughout the country under the protection of an advanced air defense system, as well as significant physical defenses, with some buried far below ground, making them impervious to all but the heaviest and most powerful of bombs.

Israel has thus far reportedly made do with a series of covert actions seemingly aimed at sabotaging the nuclear program. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that US officials have warned Israel that attacks against the Iranian nuclear program were counterproductive and have caused Tehran to rebuild an even more efficient enrichment system.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at IPS conference at Reichman University, on November 23, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Bennett criticized the policies of ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who seemingly shelved attack plans and lowered the flame on saber-rattling against Iran once the US and other world power agreed on the JCPOA in 2015.

“The mistake we made after the first nuclear deal in 2015 will not repeat itself,” said Bennett. “With all the noise beforehand, from the moment the deal was signed, it affected us like a sleeping pill. Israel simply fell asleep on duty. We occupied ourselves with other things.”

“We will learn from this mistake,” he pledged. “We will maintain our freedom of action.”

Liberman warned against dismissing the threat posed by Iran, drawing a parallel with Nazi Germany.

“We need to take into account that the Iranians are serious people. It’s clear that the world powers are striving for a deal with Iran at any cost,” he said. “We made a mistake before in our history. Hitler wrote ‘Mein Kampf’ in 1925, and they said he wasn’t serious. Iran is threatening to destroy the state of Israel and they mean it and we need to take it seriously.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (second right) listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, on April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Talks between Iran and world powers are set to restart in Vienna on November 29, after a prolonged break.

On Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog, on a visit to the United Kingdom, urged British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UK lawmakers to take a hard line against Iran during the talks in Vienna.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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