Israel accuses IAEA chief of playing into Iran’s hands

Campaigning for tougher sanctions on Tehran, Israel went on the offensive Tuesday against the UN nuclear watchdog, accusing its chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, of playing into Iran’s hands over its atomic program. The campaign comes with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) poised to publish a new report on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to serve as a key part of further discussions at the United Nations on whether to impose a third round of sanctions on Tehran.

“Unfortunately there are foreign officials playing the Iranians’ game by contributing to the Iranian strategy of foot-dragging,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told AFP.

“From this point of view the International [Atomic Energy] Agency and its leadership are guilty,” Regev added.

“One could ask whether the agency agreed to fulfill the role the Iranians want it to play, to allow Tehran to implement its strategy,” he said.

Permanent members Britain, China, France, Russia and the US, plus Germany, are backing a third UN Security Council resolution and vote on Iran, unless upcoming IAEA and EU reports show “a positive outcome.” But China and Russia, which could in theory veto further sanctions, have yet to call publicly for more punishment against the Islamic republic.

Israel and its chief ally, the United States, charge that Tehran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons – claims that Tehran flatly denies.

Senior Israeli Army intelligence officer Yossi Beidetz told Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Iran could acquire the bomb by 2009.

“Assuming Iran is not faced with difficulties, the most severe scenario is that Iran could have a nuclear bomb by the end of 2009,” he was quoted by committee members as saying.

Israel, which belongs to the IAEA but has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is widely assumed to be the Middle East’s sole – if undeclared – nuclear-armed nation.

Last month, on a tour of UN Security Council members to push for tougher sanctions against Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also criticized the IAEA chief.

“If ElBaradei thinks that an Iranian bomb in three years time does not bother him, it certainly worries me, even extremely,” Olmert said in France.

ElBaradei said in an interview with France’s Le Monde newspaper that Iran would need “between three and eight years” to develop a nuclear bomb and that there were was no immediate threat.

“I want to get people away from the idea that Iran represents a clear and present danger and that we’re now facing the decision whether to bombard Iran or let them have the bomb,” he said.

Meanwhile, Iran’s top dissident cleric said in a speech obtained Tuesday that Tehran should hold direct talks with Washington to avoid possible military action against the Islamic Republic.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, an architect of the 1979 Islamic revolution, was among Iranian leaders who endorsed the 444-day occupation of the US Embassy shortly after the monarchy was toppled, when 52 Americans were taken hostage. The event led Washington to break diplomatic relations, which Montazeri said should now be restored.

“The nuclear row should be resolved through direct talks with America to avoid a war. Talks about a possible military action should be taken seriously,” he told pro-reform students on Friday in remarks faxed to Reuters on Tuesday.

Criticizing the handling of Iran’s nuclear policy is unusual and sensitive because it is seen as a matter of national security.

Montazeri said Iranian authorities were mistaken if they believed “an attack would rally Iranians to the leadership as they did during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.”

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last say on all state matters, including the nuclear issue.

“People have changed. They are not willing to sacrifice their lives like they did during the Iraq war,” said Montazeri, who was kept under house arrest in Shiite Iran’s holy city of Qom from 1998 until 2003.

Iran’s biggest reformist party last month also warned of an escalating crisis with the international community, calling for a review of Tehran’s nuclear policy.

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