Iran has two-thirds of the fissile material it needs to manufacture a nuclear weapon, the Defense Ministry has warned, meaning that at the current pace of uranium enrichment, it will reach the break-out quantity late this year or early next year.
Defense Ministry chief of staff Mike Herzog also said in a Washington lecture a week ago that once Iran has that critical 1,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium and decides to enrich it, Iran will be able to manufacture its first nuclear weapon in late 2010 or early 2011.
Herzog noted it is entirely possible that alongside its known nuclear infrastructure, Iran maintains a clandestine production line that will accelerate nuclear capability.
Speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Herzog essentially presented the arguments that the Israeli defense establishment has drawn up ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington next week.
Netanyahu has dedicated a great deal of time in recent weeks to a "seminar" on Iran, including reading intelligence, military and scientific assessments and talks with senior military and intelligence officials on the matter.
Herzog, a former senior intelligence researcher, revealed in Washington that he recently met privately with an "eminent figure" from a Gulf state, who was interested in meeting Defense Minister Ehud Barak's chief of staff because of their common concern about the Iranian nuclear program and Iran's political ambitions.
"We are skeptical about whether Iran could be stopped," the prominent Gulf personality told Herzog. "We don't know if the U.S. administration will be assertive enough, and if Iran goes nuclear it's going to be hell for all of us."
Barak's office Thursday said that Herzog's meeting was incidental and had nothing to do with Barak's meetings.
Defense establishment circles have prepared counterarguments to comments in the Obama administration that there is no military capability - not American and even less so Israeli - to damage the Iranian nuclear program, and that even if such capability was achieved, it is better not to use it due to the high price and dubious effectiveness.
The central defense establishment message is that "no one is pleased about a military attack, but such a strike could set the Iranian nuclear program back several significant years."
Also, with no credible threat of an American or Israeli operation, Germany, Russia, China, India and other countries would have trouble supporting continued sanctions against Iran, including damage to the country's energy sector and marine and aerial blockades.
Israel supports Obama's "last chance talks with the Iranian regime," if it is a fast, compressed diplomatic move with clearly-defined goals and predetermined time limits, closely coordinated with Israel.
Defense estimates, reflected in Herzog's address, indicate that the bottleneck in the Iranian program is not planning the weapons system but in uranium enrichment and the nuclear infrastructure, which are vulnerable to efficient attack. However, scare scenarios may not be relevant, as Iranian retaliation in the form or Hezbollah, Hamas, Shi'ite elements in Iraq and Afghanistan and even Syria, may be limited.
On the division of the Middle East into a radical and a moderate axis, Herzog said that while the Israel Defense Forces conducted the Cast Lead operation in Gaza, "Egypt basically, without saying so, gave us a free hand and wished we would crush Hamas."
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