Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday played down speculation that Israel intended to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, saying it had not decided to embark on any military operation.
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"War is not a picnic. We want a picnic. We don't want a war," Barak told Israel Radio ahead of the release this week of an International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] report on Iran's nuclear activity.
"[Israel] had not yet decided to embark on any operation," he said, dismissing Israeli media speculation that he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had chosen that option.
But he said Israel had to prepare for "uncomfortable situations" and ultimately bore responsibility for its own security. All options to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions should
remain open, he said.
Barak criticized what he called a "campaign of fear" concerning the consequences of a strike on Iran. "When you hear a senior journalist tell the public that there may be 100 thousand dead," he said, "or when a mainstream newspaper claims Israel may be destroyed, or when an important MK says the cemeteries won't be enough, I say - what is this about?" Barak added that Israel is the strongest country in the region and will remain so. "A war is no picnic, but in any scenario there won't be 50 thousand or 5,000 or even 500 dead."
The IAEA report is widely expected to strengthen suspicions that Iran is seeking to produce nuclear weapons despite its statements that its uranium enrichment programme is aimed at power generation.
"I estimate that it will be quite a harsh report ... it does not surprise Israel, we have been dealing with these issues for years," Barak said. "We are probably at the last opportunity for coordinated, international, lethal sanctions that will force Iran to stop."
Western nuclear experts have told Haaretz, in anticipation of the IAEA report, that Iran will be ready to build a nuclear bomb within a few months if it desires.
Other experts, who have seen intelligence used in the compilation of the latest report, have said that Tehran already has the know-how, the technological means and the materials needed to put an atom bomb together within short order.
These experts have concluded that nuclear weapons engineers from Russia, Pakistan and North Korea have been assisting Iranian scientists in their efforts to reach nuclear capability. Haaretz published similar information last week, reporting that experts have said that Iran could carry out underground nuclear tests quite soon if it wants to.
The foreign ministers of Russia and France have warned this week that an Israeli military strike against Iran would cause irreparable damage.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that such a strike against Iran would be a grave mistake with unpredictable consequences: "This would be a very serious mistake fraught with unpredictable consequences," he said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said his country was "very worried" about the potential militarization of Iran's nuclear program, but opposes any strike against the Islamic Republic because it would destabilize the region. He said earlier this week that France supported the hardening of sanctions against Iran.
Earlier this week, Haaretz learned that U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did not get a clear commitment from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak that Israel would not take action against Iranian nuclear facilities without coordinating any such operation with the United States.
According to American officials who were briefed about the visit Panetta made a month ago to Israel, the two Israeli leaders only answered Panetta's questions regarding Israel's intentions toward Iran in a general manner.
Panetta arrived in Israel on October 3 and, in addition to Netanyahu and Barak, also met with Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and senior members of the IDF General Staff. The U.S. defense secretary's visit came against the backdrop of a sense among members of the American administration that they didn't clearly understand where Israel was headed with regard to the entire subject of the threat from Iran.
Panetta raised the Iranian issue in his talks in Israel with both Netanyahu and Barak. He sought not only to hear about Israel's intentions but also to underline that the U.S. was interested in full coordination with Israel on the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat. The American defense secretary hinted that the Americans did not want to be surprised by Israel. For their parts, however, Netanyahu and Barak avoided providing a clear response, answering vaguely and in general terms.