Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on When and Whether Israel Will Attack Iran

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June 20 2012 7:24 PM

How Long Will Israel Wait?

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on when and whether Israel will attack Iran.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak gestures during a joint press conference at Catam military air base in Bogota, Colombia, on April 16, 2012.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a visit to Bogota, Colombia, on April 16.

Photo by Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sat down this week in Tel Aviv with Lally Weymouth. Excerpts:

Q. An Israeli was killed this week in the south by someone from the Sinai. How do you see the situation in the Sinai?

A. It was another terror attack on our project to build a fence [between Israel and Egypt]. We have a crash program now to build a fence to block the flood of workers from Eritrea and North Sudan and terrorists and smugglers into Israel. This [incident] follows another rocket attack near Eilat from Sinai. That's dangerous because it means a loss of grip on the Sinai by the Egyptian authorities, and the terrorists abuse this. We are determined to stop the infiltration and to deal with terrorist attacks and the launching of rockets into Israel from Sinai.

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What's your view of the outcome of the Egyptian elections?

It's up to the Egyptian people. We expect whomever will be elected to establish a government that will live up to the international commitments of Egypt, including the peace treaty with Israel and keeping law and order in the Sinai.

This week, nuclear talks between the "P5 + 1" [United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany] and Iran resumed in Russia. Do you hold out any hope for these talks?

We hope that we'll wake up and there will be an agreement to end the Iranian nuclear weapons program. But we are too realistic. Sanctions are working better than in the past; diplomacy is more determined. But if I have to ask myself whether this will convince the ayatollahs to sit around the table and decide that the time has come to put an end to the military nuclear program, I don't think that's the case. They still feel there is room for maneuver. There is still a need both to ratchet up the sanctions and to heighten significantly the demands on the Iranians that would put an end to enrichment, would take all the enriched uranium out of the country, and would close and dismantle the installation at Fordow.

Close the installation at Fordow?

Close and dismantle it. I would expect the P5 + 1—this is now the third meeting in Moscow. There was a meeting in Baghdad and Istanbul before this. By the third meeting in a negotiation, you know whether the other party intends to reach an agreement or, alternatively, whether he is trying to play for time to avoid a decision. It seems to me that the Iranians keep defying and deceiving the whole world. But it's up to the participants in the negotiations to reach this conclusion. We cannot afford to spend another three rounds of this nature just to allow the Iranians to keep maneuvering.

How much more time can you allow?

I don't want to pretend to set timelines for the world. But we have said loud and clear that it cannot be a matter of weeks but it [also] cannot be a matter of years.

Do you know when the Iranian nuclear program will have gone too far to be able to do anything about it?

Everyone knows that the Iranians are trying to reach nuclear military capability. We all know that, until now, [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei did not order the actual building of weapons or explosive devices. Because they think that if they try to break out toward nuclear military capability, probably America or Israel or someone else will contemplate what to do about stopping it. They are trying to reach a certain kind of physical immunity against surgical attacks by burying [facilities] deep into the ground, spreading the sites over different parts of the country, producing more and more centrifuges, and accumulating more low-enriched uranium. So they are trying to reach a certain redundancy, or what I call the "zone of immunity."*

What do you mean by zone of immunity?

It means they reach a situation where, through redundancies, neither Israel and probably not even America can do anything surgically to block it. Once Khamenei reaches this kind of situation, he can be practically assured that he [has] crossed the point of no return and will end up more like North Korea or Pakistan, rather than like Iraq or Syria.

Are you worried that a third nuclear site may be discovered?

If you wait long enough, probably you will find a third or fourth or fifth site. I don't see any imminent sign of it. But they probably don't need it.

I saw one report speculating that Iran can produce highly enriched uranium at Fordow.

The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] reported that they found certain materials enriched to 27 percent [at Fordow]. There are more actions taken by the Iranians to move toward nuclear military capability than we probably know about. We are not on the inside. They are very deliberate and determined to defy the whole world the way that Pakistan and North Korea did. We have to be open-eyed. We're living in a tough neighborhood.

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