TEL AVIV // Israel's military chief said he does not believe Iran's leadership will decide to build a nuclear bomb and that sanctions and diplomatic efforts to pressure Tehran to limit its nuclear programme were starting to bear fruit.
The statements by Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz offered rare optimism by a top Israeli figure about the nuclear ambitions of a country Israel views as its arch enemy. The comments, emerging a day after Israel's premier warned that Iran may still develop an atom bomb despite the sanctions, indicated the Israeli leadership is at odds on its approach to the Iranian nuclear plans.
Mr Gantz's remarks on Iran also suggest some members of Israel's security establishment may be optimistic concerning new talks between key world powers and Iran that took place in Istanbul in mid-April and will be reconvened in Baghdad on May 23. The negotiations are taking place following a 15-month hiatus.
"Gantz sends a much more moderate message than the one we usually hear from Netanyahu. He is saying that the present strategy of the international sanctions is working," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political scientist and a former army intelligence analyst on Iran.
Mr Alpher suggested that the more moderate view on Iran by Mr Gantz and other security establishment leaders may halt, at least temporarily, any plans by the top political echelon to launch a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. "The political leadership needs support and cooperation from the security establishment in order to carry out a military operation," he said.
The Israeli military chief, in an interview with the liberal Haaretz newspaper that was published today, said Iran "is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn't yet decided whether to go the extra mile." He added that he viewed Iran's leadership as being composed of "very rational people" and that he didn't think Iran's most powerful figure, Ayatolla Ali Khamenei, "will want to go the extra mile."
Mr Gantz suggested in the interview that Israel should get ready to take military action against Tehran but that it should not rush into it. "Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria," he said. Nevertheless, he added that Israel is "preparing for it in a credible manner."
Iran itself has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear programme is for peaceful aims and says it has the right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.
Yesterday, Hossein Mousavian, who served as chief nuclear negotiator for Iran between 2003 and 2005, was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying that Iran and the world powers with which it is holding negotiations have a "historic opportunity" to settle their decade-old nuclear dispute. However, he also said that forcing Iran to halt higher-grade uranium enrichment would be discriminatory.
In the talks between Iran and the six powers - including the US, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia - Iran is aiming for the lifting of sanctions and international recognition of the right it claims it has to peaceful nuclear energy, including enriching uranium. The six powers want the Islamic republic to commit to not develop nuclear bombs.
On Tuesday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister and head of a predominantly right-wing governing coalition, told the US channel CNN in an interview that sanctions are not effective enough.
He said the sanctions "are certainly taking a bite out of the Iranian economy, but so far they have not rolled back the Iranian programme or even stopped it by one iota." He added that nuclear centrifuges are "spinning as we speak. So if the sanctions are going to work, they better work soon."
Israeli officials and analysts are sceptical of the resumed talks with Iran but say the Israeli government has little say against them because the US, Israel's staunchest ally, won't support any military moves against Iran at least until after the US presidential elections in November.
David Menashri, the director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the next stage in the talks is "important because the powers will want Iran to deliver".
However, he added, the Iranians may not give in out of fear of appearing weak both at home and abroad if they curb their nuclear programme. He said: "The Iranians are sincere and I believe in their readiness to have dialogue. But I am not optimistic that they will be coming with a clear promise not to cross the red lines."