Israeli losing patience for Iran talks

Date: 06-06-07

By ANNE GEARAN, AP Diplomatic Writer

WASHINGTON - A senior member of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government suggested Wednesday that his country is running out of patience with a U.S.-backed diplomatic overture to head off Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Top U.S. and Israeli officials also briefly discussed a possible Israeli peace initiative to adversary Syria during security talks Wednesday, a U.S. spokesman said.

The talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others were focused largely on Iran. Israel accuses Iran of arming Hezbollah militants attacking Israel now, but is more concerned over the possibility that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons in the future.

"Iran continues a military nuclear program," said Shaul Mofaz, Israel's deputy prime minister and transportation minister, following a meeting with Rice.

"I believe diplomatic efforts should bear results until the end of 2007," Mofaz added without elaboration.

Although cryptic, his remark was apparently a sign of declining Israeli confidence that carrot-and-stick diplomacy will persuade Iran to give up parts of its nuclear program that Israel and the West fear could lead to a bomb.

Neither Israel nor the U.S. has ruled out a military strike to stop or slow Iran's progress, but President Bush says he is committed to diplomacy.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he was not aware of any discussion of a deadline for diplomacy during Rice's meeting with Mofaz.

"I'm not sure about the timeline but yeah, he did talk about Iran, he did talk about their level of concern about the progress that they are making," McCormack said in an interview.

Separately, Israel's ambassador in Washington warned that Iran may be only two years away from producing nuclear weapons. Sallai Meridor said Iran is having trouble with the process of installing centrifuges, and was trying to decide between "quantity and quality" in its program.

He called 2009 "the worst-case scenario" for Iran to have the bomb, and renewed Israel's vow to try to derail any nuclear weapons program.

The diplomatic effort with Iran is not on a timeline like the one Mofaz appeared to propose, but some European and United Nations officials have also suggested that it may be time to look at different approaches.

Talks over a package of incentives for Iran have been stalled for nearly two years, and a historic U.S offer of direct dialogue with Iran last year has gone nowhere.

Iran claims its nuclear development program is intended only to produce civilian nuclear power. Tehran has refused to give up its ability to enrich uranium - an ingredient for both power plants and weapons - and has accelerated the program.

The United States refuses to participate in any talks, and opposes others doing so, unless Iran drops enrichment. The Bush administration has led efforts to win two rounds of mild U.N. sanctions against Iran and is working on a third round. Iran so far has brushed off the sanctions as insignificant, but U.S. officials say they are having an effect.

"Look, we believe that the diplomatic pathway is the right pathway to try to resolve this," McCormack said at a State Department briefing. "There are existing options, in the absence of doing nothing, that are out there. Nobody wants to see those come about."

Rice's discussions with Mofaz touched on the possibility that Israel would restart peace efforts with Syria, McCormack said. The U.S. has frowned on that approach in the past, preferring to focus on peace prospects between Israel and the Palestinians and worried that Syria would use the contact as diplomatic leverage with the U.S.

"Look, we're not going to manage Israeli foreign policy," McCormack said later, adding that Israel will make its own decisions.

"But let's take a look at Syria's behavior over the recent past, and I don't think you're going to find many indications of Syria showing the rest of the world that they are interested in playing a constructive, positive role in trying to bring about a more peaceful, secure region."

Mofaz said Israel is also focused on the Palestinian track, which he called "our first priority."

In Israel, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel must probe any possibility of diplomacy with Syria.

"A diplomatic process with Syria could immediately and dramatically change the balance on three fronts," he told Israel Radio, "so picking up the gauntlet, or exploring any chance for sincere negotiations with Syria is, in my opinion, an option that absolutely must not be neglected."

The three fronts he referred to were Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian front.


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