New York Times: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, winding up a three-day visit to the United States, said Wednesday that despite mounting concern in Israel over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, his government was not “planning any military attack on Iran” and would push for “an international effort” to deal with the problem.
New York Times
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, winding up a three-day visit to the United States, said Wednesday that despite mounting concern in Israel over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, his government was not “planning any military attack on Iran” and would push for “an international effort” to deal with the problem.
“I think that here it should be a coalition of democracies who believe in the danger, led by the United States, in order to put pressure upon Iran,” Mr. Sharon said in an interview on CNN. Asked if a unilateral military strike by Israel had been ruled out, he added, “We don’t think that’s what we have to do.”
He added that he wanted it understood “that Israel is not leading the struggle” against Iran even though it was sharing information on the matter with the United States. “Of course we exchange intelligence,” he said. “We exchange views, we discuss these issues, but it’s not that we are planning any military attack on Iran.”
The comments were significant because of the heightened American concern that Israel might take unilateral action, as expressed privately by senior administration officials and publicly by Vice President Dick Cheney three months ago.
While expressing that concern, however, Mr. Cheney and others have praised Israel in retrospect for its bombing of a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, an action that was condemned by the United States at the time.
Mr. Sharon returned to Israel on Wednesday evening after what his aides said was an extremely productive visit, highlighted by a stop at President Bush’s ranch at Crawford, Tex., on Monday. At that meeting, Mr. Bush reiterated the administration’s all-out support for Israel’s plans to withdraw forces and settlers from Gaza this coming summer.
The two sides also discussed American opposition to Israeli expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, with Mr. Sharon saying Israel would continue to regard expansion in certain areas as its prerogative even though Israelis said afterward that such expansion plans would not be carried out in the immediate future.
Much of the talk in Crawford focused on Mr. Sharon’s concern over the pace of talks between three European countries and Iran about its suspected nuclear weapons program. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Mr. Sharon had brought new intelligence suggesting that Iran had gone further toward making a bomb than was suspected by the United States.
On CNN, Mr. Sharon declined to repeat the claim by some Israeli officials that Iran was as little as months away from a so-called point of no return, which Israelis define as the achievement by Iran of the technical means to make a bomb, even though the actual making of such a weapon might be years off.
“I would say the point of no return depends upon the ability of the Iranians to solve some technical issues,” Mr. Sharon said. “I’d say to have a bomb, that might take years.” But he added that given the intensity of Iranian efforts, solving the problems that stand in their way might take a “much shorter” time.
The question of the imminence of the Iranian threat has been a divisive one between the United States and Europe and inside the Bush administration. Britain, France and Germany are offering economic incentives to Iran to transform its current suspension of uranium enrichment into a complete cessation of enrichment activities.
But the talks have dragged on, and some conservatives in the Bush administration are concerned about what they say has been Iranian cheating and other activities consistent with moving ahead with a weapons program. European officials have found one limited case of Iran’s violating its suspension agreement but are proceeding with the talks anyway.
Israeli officials say they deeply fear that the talks could lead to Iran’s being allowed a small nuclear program for civilian purposes that could be used as a weapons program. Bush administration officials say they do not intend for that to happen, but Israeli pressure was seen in the administration as an important reminder of the thinking of an ally.
Mr. Sharon came to Washington on Monday evening from Texas and has spent the last two days meeting with other Bush administration officials, including Mr. Cheney, and with Congressional leaders, leaders of Jewish groups and American news media representatives. He also met with Jewish members of Congress at Blair House on Wednesday.
Much of the Israeli press has reported that Mr. Sharon wanted support for Israel’s plans to expand settlements in large populated areas in the West Bank. Mr. Bush indicated in April of last year that certain settlement blocks would end up as part of Israel in a final settlement with the Palestinians.
Mr. Bush did not give such a green light, but he did add a sentence to his letter of last year saying a final accord between Israel and the Palestinians would have to recognize certain “realities” of the existence of these settlement areas.
On Monday, Mr. Bush said that not only were these “realities” but that it was “the American view” that they “must be taken into account in any final status negotiations” on Israel’s boundaries. That wording was very satisfying to Mr. Sharon, an Israeli official said.