By Karin Brulliard and Joby Warrick, JERUSALEM : Israel’s military chief said in an interview published Wednesday that he believes Iran will choose not to build a nuclear bomb, an assessment that contrasted with the gloomier statements of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pointed to differences over the Iran issue at the top levels of Israeli leadership.
The comments by Maj. Gen Benny Gantz, who said international sanctions have begun to show results, could relieve pressure on the Obama administration and undercut efforts by Israeli political leaders to urge the United States to get as tough as possible on Iran.Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have repeatedly stressed that they do not think sanctions and diplomacy will persuade Iran to halt a nuclear program they describe as a military one, and they warn that the time to stop it is quickly shrinking.
But the Israeli security establishment is believed to be far less convinced about the urgency of military action. Gantz made his own reservations clear in a handful of rare interviews with Israeli newspapers, offering comments that analysts said seemed intended to inject nuance into a debate that has reached frenzied heights this spring. Speaking to the newspaper Haaretz, he said that the Israeli military would be ready to act if ordered, but that he did not think that this year would be “necessarily go, no-go.”
Gantz described Iranian leaders as “very rational people” who are still mulling whether to “go the extra mile” and produce nuclear weapons.
“I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile,” Gantz said of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. While Gantz cautioned that Khamenei could still change his mind, the supreme leader has said repeatedly that Iran does not intend to build a nuclear weapon, and that its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful purposes.
Although striking in its bluntness, Gantz’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear intentions did not differ dramatically from comments made publicly and privately by other current and former Israeli officials in recent months. Others have also concluded, for example, that Iran intends to achieve nuclear weapons capability but would stop short of assembling and testing a bomb, steps that would almost certainly incur a military response from Israel and perhaps the United States.
But Gantz’s comments differed starkly in tone from those made recently by Netanyahu about the diplomatic efforts of the United States and other world powers. The prime minister recently dismissed the five-week break between this month’s nuclear talks in Istanbul and the next round as a “freebie” that awarded Iran more time to work toward making bombs.
“The centrifuges are still spinning,” Netanyahu told CNN this week. “They were spinning before the talks began recently with Iran, they were spinning during the talks, they’re spinning as we speak. So if the sanctions are going to work, they’d better work soon.”
Ray Takeyh, a former State Department senior adviser on the Persian Gulf region, said Gantz’s comments suggest that Israeli officials, like many of their counterparts in Iran and the United States, are looking for ways to step down from the current crisis.
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