JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's defense minister on Sunday called on the international community to press Iran to give up its stockpile of high-grade enriched uranium in upcoming negotiations over Tehran's disputed nuclear program.
With the comments, Ehud Barak appeared to offer a possible way out of the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program. However it appears unlikely Iran, which maintains its right to enrich uranium, would accept his demands.
Israel has repeatedly threatened to use force against Iran if diplomacy and international sanctions fail to curb the Iranian nuclear program.
Speaking to CNN, Barak said Israel has told the U.S. and European countries that "the threshold for successful negotiations" would be a halt in Iranian enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level. In addition, he said, all uranium already enriched to that level should be transferred to a "neighboring trusted country."
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, along with Germany, are to begin talks Friday with Iran. Many in the international community, including Israel, suspect Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Enriched uranium is a key ingredient in bomb making, though enrichment would have to be at the 90 percent level for it to be weapons grade. But enriched uranium at lower levels can also be used to generate electricity and in medical research. Iran, for whom the enriched uranium program has become a point of national pride, maintains its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and is loathe to put any restrictions on it.
Israeli officials say the jump from 20 percent enrichment to 90 percent is relatively simple and could be done in as little as two to three months.
While Barak said the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran should concern the entire world, Israel views a nuclear Iran as a threat to its very existence. It cites Iran's support for militant Arab groups, its calls for Israel's destruction and its development of long-range missiles.
Barak's comments largely reiterated previous positions, but the timing was significant because it comes days before a new round of international talks with Iran.
Barak also believes that most of Iran's lower-grade uranium, enriched to just 3.5 percent, should be stored outside the country, Iran should decommission its enrichment site at Fordo, which is buried deep inside a mountain, and accept supervision by U.N. nuclear inspectors.
Iran insists it will never surrender the ability to enrich uranium. But with tough new economic sanctions set to go into effect in the coming months, Iran is under heavy pressure to show more flexibility than in the last round of talks, which broke down 14 months ago.
Israeli officials have repeatedly said they hope international pressure will succeed in curbing the Iranian nuclear program, but also refused to rule out a military option. Israeli officials have said that as Iran continues to enrich uranium and move its facilities deep underground, time is running out to act.
Barak refused to give a deadline, but suggested military action would have to take place in the next few months. "We don't have to make a decision next week," he said. "We cannot wait years, though."