Halutz: Iran Will Be Able to Enrich Uranium by March

Iran will be capable of enriching uranium within the next three months, but will have to overcome many technological obstacles before reaching the nuclear "point of no return," Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said yesterday.

"Iran is determined to obtain the technological capability that will allow it to produce a nuclear bomb, but numerous obstacles remain in its path," Halutz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "Even if the Iranians pass the uranium-enrichment stage, they are still a number of years away from building the bomb."

As soon as Iran completes the enrichment stage, it will have the technological knowledge to create nuclear weapons, said Halutz. But it would still take Iran time to be able to produce a nuclear bomb - Halutz estimated this could happen between 2008 and 2015.

"An Iran with nuclear capability is a global problem," said Halutz. "It will be difficult to impose sanctions on it, and the problem could arise of the transfering of `dirty bombs' to terror organizations."

The International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors is slated to convene on March 6 to discuss imposing sanctions on Iran, Halutz noted.

Committee chair MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said it is clear the Iranians are moving toward nuclear armament and that time is running out for Israel and the world to stop Tehran's advances. He opposed the use of the term "point of no return," saying that the process of building a nuclear weapon could be stopped at any point.

Two weeks ago, Major Gen. Aharon Ze'evi (Farkash), director of Military Intelligence, told the committee that attempts to use diplomacy to thwart Iran's nuclear plans would be in danger when Iran begins enriching uranium - a phase he defined as the point of no return.

"If Iran's nuclear efforts are not halted by the end of March 2006, there will be no more reason for diplomatic activity," Ze'evi said at the time.

Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, encouraged Palestinians yesterday to continue their struggle against Israel. Iranian television reported that Khamenei told Hamas leader Khaled Meshal that "the experience of the last 50 years teaches that negotiation with the Zionist occupation doesn't improve the situation. We will achieve victory through the struggle only."

Meanwhile, Labor Party officials yesterday accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and other defense officials of using the Iranian issue in their election campaigns in an effort to divert public debate from social issues.

"I hope the upcoming elections won't motivate the prime minister and defense minister to stray from government policy and place Israel on the frontlines of a confrontation with Iran," said MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor).