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"Israel can in no way accept the presence of a nuclear weapon in Iranian hands," declared Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, during his visit last week to Washington. Thus, Mofaz has set the lines of a new policy, which henceforth obliges Israel, setting a challenge it likely cannot meet, and the effort to meet the challenge will be more damaging than its usefulness.

It must be understood that, in effect, Mofaz said that if the Iranian nuclear program is not halted as a result of international pressure, Israel will have no choice but to block it by itself. That can only have one meaning: Israel will be forced to attack Iran's nuclear facilities to foil any further development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Mofaz also emphasized that the U.S., as leader of the international efforts to stop the Iranians, only has a few more months to persuade the ayatollahs' regime to give up its nuclear ambitions, because in 2004, Iran will pass the "point of no return" in its nuclear program. By then it will have the know-how and experience to finish the bomb without outside help.

Since the chances are slim the U.S. will manage to get the Iranians to cancel their weapons program, mostly because the Iranians has no intention of readily giving it up, it is possible that in a few months' time, Mofaz will try to cash in on his statement in Washington. How soon that could be is evident in the the International Atomic Energy Agency report, some of which came out last week. Iran, according to the report, admitted for the first time that it managed to produce plutonium, the fissionable material necessary for a nuclear bomb.

According to the report, Iran produced the plutonium between 1992 and 1998. That means that Iran long ago overcame an important technological obstacle, and if, as is its wont, it isn't telling the entire truth, it is very possible it has produced a significant amount of plutonium.

The IAEA report is worrying because it points to a routine behavior of concealment, deception and mendacity on Iran's part when it comes to its nuclear program.

The Iranians "failed" to report on much of its nuclear activity, including the acquisition of nuclear materials, building secret nuclear facilities, and even uranium enrichment with centrifuges. Iran is obliged to fully report on these matters because of its membership in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

As opposed to the optimism of the IAEA report (even though it is difficult to understand IAEA Chairman Mohammed ElBaradie's optimism in his summary that says the agency did not find evidence of the existence of a nuclear weapons development program in Iran), the Non-proliferation Policy Education Center comes to a very different conclusion. The center is an important institute monitoring nuclear proliferation.

"If the open nuclear timetable Iran has set is not disrupted, Iran could have a large number of nuclear bombs - 50-75 - by 2006," says the Washington-based institute's report issued last week. The experts say that instead of a focus on the program to enrich uranium and the sites already revealed at Arak and Natanz, it's the potential of the nuclear reactor at Bashahar that should be examined. There, say the experts, it is possible to produce large quantities of plutonium, from the used reactor fuel and build up a stockpile of fissionable material - all without violating the NPT.

Even if they are exaggerating, the IAEA report is enough to reach the conclusion that next year could be critical for the development of the Iranian nuclear project.

And that's precisely the problem with Mofaz's statement. If it turns out that Iran is going to cross the point of no return without the international community capable or wanting to prevent it, Israel, Mofaz believes, will have to take a unilateral military action.

Even if we assume that the Israeli government decides that Iran's nuclear potential justifies a preemptive strike by the air force deep inside a country that did not attack Israel, the chance of actually accomplishing the goals of the attack are pretty slim. An Israeli attack on Iran would put an end to U.S. and other international efforts to pressure Iran to end the program, or at least postpone it.

The defense minister's statement in Washington shows that like quite a few of his colleagues in the defense establishment's upper echelons, he is unable to rid himself of the good old view that Israel can solve every problem in the region through the use of force.

Regrettably, there are problems that even all the might of the Israel Defense Forces cannot solve.