Israelis agree that Iran hasn’t decided on nuke

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Despite saber rattling from Jerusalem, Israeli officials now agree with the U.S. assessment that Tehran has not yet decided on the actual construction of a nuclear bomb, according to senior Israeli government and defense figures.

Even so, there is great concern in Israel about leaving Iran “on the cusp” of a bomb — explaining why Israel continues to hint at a military attack on Iran’s nuclear installations before it moves enough of them underground to protect them from Israeli bombs.

Israel’s leaders have been charging in no uncertain terms for years that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Though officials say they accept the more nuanced American view, they warn that it is just a matter of semantics, because an Iran on the verge of being able to build a bomb still would be a danger.

The United States is playing up its assessment that Iran has not made its final decision in a public campaign to persuade Israel to call off any attack plan and allow the increasingly harsh sanctions against Iran time to persuade Tehran to back down.

The concern — which is widely shared in Israel as part of a complex calculation — is of an Iranian retaliation that might spark regional conflict and send oil prices soaring, at a time when the world economy is already struggling and U.S. presidential elections loom.

Also in the equation are concerns about the ability of the Israeli home front to withstand a sustained barrage of Iranian missiles fired in retaliation. Iranian surrogates Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip could also bombard Israel with thousands of rockets, and U.S. troops in the Gulf region could also become targets.

Several senior Israeli officials who spoke in recent days to the Associated Press said Israel has come around to the U.S. view that no final decision to build a bomb has been made by Iran. The officials, who are privy to intelligence and to the discussion about the Iranian program, said this is the prevailing view in the intelligence community, but there are also questions about whether Tehran might be hiding specific bomb-making operations.

The concern, they said, is about allowing the Iranian program to reach the point where there is enough enriched weapons-grade material that a bomb could be assembled quickly, within a year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, “Iran, whose leader foments terrorism and violence around the globe and calls for our destruction … this regime must never be allowed to have nuclear weapons.”

Israel officials have said that with Iran moving its installations underground, Israel’s level of bunker-busting capability leaves it with a window of no more than several months to act effectively. The United States, with more powerful bombs, would have a much longer period — but leaders here are loathe to be entirely dependent on U.S. determination on the issue.

The suspicion in Israel is that the Iranians have held off on a decision in order to deny Israel — and other countries — the pretext for an attack, officials said, noting that to a certain extent the matter is semantic and therefore secondary.

All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is deemed too delicate to be discussed on the record, and the government has ordered silence.

Israel views Iran as a threat to its survival and, like the West, sees Tehran’s ramped-up enrichment of uranium, a key element of bomb making, as undercutting its claims that its nuclear program is purely civilian. The U.N. nuclear agency cited its concerns about Iran’s ultimate designs in reports, but the agency notes that its inspectors have found no direct evidence that Iran is moving toward an atomic weapon.

Mr. Netanyahu ratcheted up the tough talk this month, emphasizing during a White House visit and in a high-profile speech at home that Israel was prepared to act alone if necessary, even over U.S. objections.

In advance of Mr. Netanyahu’s White House visit and during a speech to a powerful pro-Israel lobby, President Obama took an increasingly assertive tone about U.S. refusal to tolerate a nuclear Iran and willingness to block that militarily.

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