Reliable information or a diplomatic manipulation - that is the big question surrounding the statements on Monday by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to the effect that Iran has achieved a significant technological advance in its efforts to enrich uranium. If the information, as reported in The New York Times Tuesday, is accurate, then Iran has reached the stage described by Israeli intelligence as "the point of no return." But experts in the West say that ElBaradei's statements were exaggerated.
If ElBaradei's information is correct, it is now only a matter of between months and two years until Iran reaches the point at which it will have produced sufficient quantities of nuclear material - 20-25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium - to enable it to make a nuclear bomb. This suggests that the time is approaching in which the international community, in particular the U.S. and Israel, will have to make a decision on Iran.
The U.S. will have to decide whether to attack Iran, in order to delay its nuclear program and prevent Tehran from developing its first nuclear weapon. If the U.S. chooses not to attack, the issue may have to be decided by Israel's leadership. An attack against Iran's nuclear installations, its air defenses, airports and communications, would likely lead to an Iranian response that could draw the entire region into war. Israel would be at the epicenter of such a war.
There are, however, experts in the West who believe that ElBaradei spoke this week in the hope of affecting the diplomatic dialogue and disrupting U.S. and EU efforts to prevail upon the UN Security Council to impose further sanctions on Iran. ElBaradei is concerned that further sanctions will ultimately lead to a military confrontation, which he is determined to avoid. Indeed, a year ago, the IAEA chief undertook steps intended to appease Iran. He proposed that Iran's right to enrich uranium on its soil be recognized, as Tehran has demanded, but that it be permitted to produce only a small amount of the material.
According to the expert observers, ElBaradei is trying to defuse the justification for the sanctions Israel, the U.S. and the EU are demanding, because, if Iran has already achieved the technological capability sanctions are meant to forestall, there would be no point in imposing them. Therefore, say the same sources, it is unlikely that Iran has reached that "technological threshold," and international sanctions are still justified. Either way, the moment of decision is approaching for all involved.
It is clear, therefore, that 2007, or 2008 at the latest, marks the time when it will become clear whether Iran will have nuclear weapons, with all its implications for Israel, the broader Middle East and the international community.
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