Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to hand over responsibility for coordinating and leading Israel's effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons to Mossad chief Meir Dagan.

Sharon's office believes it is logical for the mission to move to the Mossad, which can gather intelligence, analyze and assess it and, in the future, perhaps conduct operations.

Israel regards the emerging Iranian nuclear threat as the most critical to its national security. According to Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence assessments, Iran will cross the point of no return in another year, at which time it will be able to create fissionable material for bombs. By 2006, it will have operational nuclear weapons. For the last six years, Israel has been conducting a diplomatic campaign, primarily with the help of the United States, to block or at least delay the Iranian project.

Sharon plans a discussion with senior security and diplomatic officials, at which time the plan will be finalized. So far, the National Security Council has handled the interministry coordination and the "leakage committee" that coordinated the political contacts with the U.S. aimed at foiling Iran's nuclear weapons program. With the retirement of NSC Chairman Ephraim Halevy, Sharon decided to reconsider the distribution of responsibility. The discussion was postponed because of the bus bombing in Jerusalem two weeks ago, and was postponed again today because Sharon fell ill.

According to the plan, Dagan, who was appointed Mossad chief by Sharon, will coordinate the interministry forum and other bodies will operate according to his instructions and their expertise. The foreign ministry will handle diplomatic contacts, Military Intelligence will help collect intelligence and assess it, and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) will provide professional-technical support in nuclear affairs and handle contacts with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Sharon's plans to hand over the Iranian portfolio to the Mossad has raised intense opposition in other government bodies. The opponents believe it is a sensitive diplomatic issue that the Mossad, as a security intelligence agency, is not built to handle, and therefore it should focus on its professional sphere rather than dealing with diplomacy. Furthermore, the Mossad has no specific expertise in nuclear matters. The "leakage committee," which coordinated efforts to block Russian and other technology transfers to Iran, is currently headed by Yisrael Michaeli, deputy head of the NSC, who played a key role at the AEC in the past.

The IAEA board of governors is meeting in Vienna next Monday, and will discuss suspicions that Iran has violated its commitments and is hiding experiments in enriched uranium from international inspectors. The U.S. is demanding a declaration be made about Iranian violations and that the matter be moved to the UN Security Council, which is empowered to impose political and economic sanctions. However, the inspectors' report prepared for the meeting next week seeks more time to complete testing, and it is doubtful that the Americans will manage to win agreement in the governors' council for more aggressive steps against Iran.

Tehran, which insists it is not developing weapons, is now trying to gain time. It announced last week that it would meet international demands and sign the "additional protocol," which expands the authority of inspectors inside Iran. The Iranians announced they are ready to begin negotiations for that signature after the Vienna meeting, saying they need time to persuade conservative elements in the Tehran regime that it is worth Iran's while to sign the protocol.

European Union foreign policy coordinator Javier Solana said this week in Israel that he heard from Iranian President Mohammed Khatami that the protocol will only be signed after negotiations, and not before. Solana said he expects Iran will find it difficult to supply explanations for the discovery of high levels of enriched uranium at one of its facilities. Meanwhile, the Iranians are admitting to purchasing the enrichment centrifuges on the black market when they were already contaminated with enriched uranium. Solana told his Israeli hosts, "Iran cannot be allowed to achieve nuclear capability other than for civilian purposes."