JERUSALEM — Israeli officials, who've been warning that Iran would soon pose a nuclear threat to the world, reacted angrily Tuesday to a new U.S. intelligence finding that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons development program in 2003 and to date hasn't resumed trying to produce nuclear weapons.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak directly challenged the new assessment in an interview with Israel's Army Radio, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the new finding wouldn't deter Israel or the United States from pressing its campaign to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.
"It seems Iran in 2003 halted for a certain period of time its military nuclear program, but as far as we know, it has probably since revived it," Barak said.
"Even after this report, the American stance will still focus on preventing Iran from attaining nuclear capability," Olmert said. "We will expend every effort along with our friends in the U.S. to prevent the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons."
Probably no country felt more blindsided than Israel by the announcement Monday that 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, in a stunning reassessment, had concluded with "high confidence" that Iran had halted its nuclear program in 2003 and with "moderate confidence" that it hadn't restarted that program as of mid-2007.
For years, Israel has been at the forefront of international efforts to isolate Iran, with Israeli intelligence estimates warning that Iran was on the brink of a nuclear "point of no return," an ominous assessment that often fueled calls for a military strike.
Israeli officials also have sought to isolate Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, citing his calls for Israel's destruction and his skepticism that the Holocaust took place.
The U.S. intelligence finding said that evidence "suggests" that Iran isn't as determined as U.S. officials thought to develop a nuclear weapon and that a diplomatic approach that included economic pressure and some nod to Iranian goals for regional influence might persuade Iran to continue to suspend weapons development.
On Tuesday morning, Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper called the U.S. findings "a blow below the belt." An analysis in the competing Haaretz newspaper suggested that Israel might come to be viewed as a "panic-stricken rabbit" and said that the U.S. intelligence estimate established "a new, dramatic reality: The military option, American or Israeli, is off the table, indefinitely."
"This is definitely a blow to attempts to stop Iran from becoming nuclear because now everybody will be relaxed and those that were reluctant to go ahead with harsher sanctions will now have a good excuse," said Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.
The estimate created an awkward situation for Israeli leaders, who mostly tried to sidestep direct criticism of the Bush administration.
Olmert sought to focus on the report's finding that Iran had been deterred in 2003 from pursuing its nuclear weapons program by international pressure. That, said Olmert, made continued sanctions essential.
Barak was tougher and promised that the report wouldn't influence Israeli policy.
"We cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the earth, even if it is from our greatest friend," he said.
Israeli officials also highlighted where the U.S. and Israeli assessments agree.
They noted that while the latest U.S. assessment said that the earliest Iran was likely to develop enough weapons-grade material for a nuclear bomb was 2010, Israeli assessments weren't dramatically different, finding that Iran could develop the workings for a nuclear bomb by 2009.
Gerald Steinberg, the chairman of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University, suggested that the findings might increase the chances that Israel will attack Iran because they reduce the chances that the United States will act.
"I think it may introduce a lot of stress in the Israeli-American relationship," he said.
But Emily Landau, the director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, said it would be very difficult for Israel to launch an attack without explicit support from the United States.
"If Israel were to carry out a military action, it would have to be in coordination with the United States, so if the United States is moving away from that option, it would have implications for Israel as well," she said.
(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)
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