Israeli and American officials involved in the intelligence analysis of Iran's nuclear efforts will meet soon to discuss the two countries' differing assessments of Iran's rate of progress toward achieving nuclear weapons.
Israel, which was surprised by the National Intelligence Assessment on Iran released last week, initiated the meeting. Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved the idea of a meeting, reportedly preferring lower-level talks that would avoid involving diplomatic positions or organizational responsibility for the meaning or interpretation of the data.
Defense establishment sources said this week that Israel accepted 90 to 95 percent of the intelligence material on which the American assessment was based, including the assertion that Iran stopped the development of nuclear weapons in 2003 but was continuing uranium enrichment and the development of long-range weapons.
Among the Israeli participants in the talks will be experts at the level of department heads in the Intelligence Branch of the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad, the Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission, mostly at the level of colonel or their civilian counterpart.
The U.S. intelligence community will be represented by representatives from the CIA, Pentagon intelligence agencies, the Department of Energy and the National Intelligence Council operating alongside the Director of National Intelligence. The main framers of the report were Leslie Ireland, issue manager on Iran in the National Intelligence Council and her colleague, Vann Van Diepen, issue manager for weapons of mass destruction.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a meeting this week with the editors of USA Today, a transcript of which was distributed by her office, that President George W. Bush had decided to release an unclassified version of the intelligence report to stress that along with stopping the development of nuclear weapons four years ago, Iran continues to enrich nuclear material for military purposes and to obtain missiles.
Rice said that if the Iranians "embraced" the whole intelligence report, the U.S. would want to know what program was stopped in 2003, how far it went and what the significance of was of stopping it, "given that weaponization is only one element of a weapons program."
Rice confirmed repeatedly that the U.S. demanded that Iran stop enrichment of uranium as a precondition to negotiations. "The situation we would not want to get into is where there are endless negotiations while Iran perfects the enrichment and reprocessing capability because once you've learned to do it - it's an engineering problem, " she said.
The Washington Post quoted last Saturday from statements made two years ago by former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani to American experts then visiting Teheran. "Look, as long as we can enrich uranium and master the fuel cycle, we don't need anything else. Our neighbors will be able to draw the proper conclusions," he told his guests. The statement was also quoted by former American peace emissary Dennis Ross in the New Republic weekly.
Until the release of the American report, the defense establishment believed Israel might find itself involved in a military conflict with Iran in the coming year if Bush decided to act against Tehran and Iran responded against Israeli targets as well.
In the wake of this assumption, the extension of Air Force commander Major General Elyezer Shkedy's command, until April 2008, is under consideration. A number of additional reshuffles of Air Force brass depend on whether Shkedy remains in his post.
Chief of Staff Gabi Ashskenazi recently interviewed three candidates for Shkedy's job: the chief of planning on the General Staff, Major General Ido Nechushtan; Brigadier General Amir Ehsel, head of the Air Force headquarters and head of the IAF's Air Directorate, Brigadier General Yohanan Locker.
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