Barak Says Iran Sanctions Have Further to Go Before Military Strike Needed

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called for “tight, ratcheted-up” sanctions against Iran to force the country to curb its nuclear ambitions, and said the political process had further to go before a military strike.

“We’re still in the sanctions stage and we expect them to become even more tight,” Barak said at a press conference today in Tokyo at the end of a four-day visit. “I think there is consensus in most capitals of the world that Iran should not be allowed to turn into a nuclear military power.”

Action against Iran’s nuclear facilities must be considered before the country achieves “the same kind of immunity as Kim Jong Il,” Barak said, referring to the late North Korean leader who defied pressure to abandon a nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. and European Union have increased sanctions against Iran’s oil industry and financial system, saying the measures are necessary to force concessions from Iran over its nuclear program. Iran has been under United Nations investigation since 2003 for suspected atomic weapons work.

The standoff has raised tensions in a region that holds more than half of the world’s oil reserves. Iranian officials have threatened to cut off the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of crude trade passes.

Oil Prices

Crude oil prices increased 4.8 percent in February on concern the tensions between Iran and Israel will lead to a military conflict that disrupts oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. Iran is OPEC’s second-biggest producer.

An Israeli attack on Iran would be “destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve their long-term objectives,” U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

“It’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran,” Dempsey said in an interview with CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” scheduled to be broadcast tomorrow. The U.S. government is confident the Israelis “understand our concerns,” he said, according to an e-mailed transcript.

The UN Security Council has passed four sets of sanctions against nuclear officials and companies in Iran. UN nuclear inspectors will return to Tehran for a second time in a month for meetings with Iranian atomic officials Feb. 21-22.

The U.S. has sent the White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon to Israel for a two-day visit beginning today.

Economic Sanctions

Dempsey said the economic sanctions imposed on Iran and international pressure are beginning to have an effect, without elaborating. The European Union agreed on Jan. 23 to ban any oil imports from Iran, and the U.S. denied access to its financial system for any foreign bank that conducts business with the Central Bank of Iran. The EU oil sanctions will take effect in July.

“We are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor,” Dempsey said. “We also know, or we believe we know, that the Iranian regime has not decided” to make a nuclear weapon, he said. Iran says its enrichment of uranium is for making power while Israel says it’s aimed at making weapons.

Direct Talks

Iran wants direct talks on its nuclear program at the “earliest possibility,” the country’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to European Union foreign policy head Catherine Ashton. Ashton and Secretary State Hillary Clinton, who met in Washington yesterday, welcomed the initiative.

Swift, the global bank-transfer service, said yesterday it is prepared to impose sanctions against Iranian financial institutions once the EU sets out implementation rules.

Barak said Iran should be hit with “sanctions against the central bank and removing its access to international clearing systems.” Countries can’t hide behind the threat of losing oil from Iran in deciding whether to take action, because Saudi Arabia is ready to increase production and exports from Iraq are also increasing, he said.

Japan is seeking an exemption from a U.S. law that would punish its banks unless it cuts Iranian oil imports, while saying it has reduced Iranian crude purchases by 40 percent in the past five years and will continue to do so.

Iran said this week it had installed 3,000 “new- generation” domestically made centrifuges at its main nuclear research reactor in Natanz in central Iran, describing it as a “major” breakthrough. The U.S. downplayed the news, with State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland calling it “hyped” in order to boost nationalism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government blames Iran for this week’s car bombings of Israeli diplomatic vehicles in New Delhi and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Two men with Iranian passports were also detained in Bangkok after explosions.

Support for Syria

Separately, an Iranian destroyer and supply ship docked in the Syrian port of Tartus yesterday to train Syria’s navy, after passing through the Suez Canal, Iran’s state-run Press TV reported today. It was only the second time Iranian ships entered the Mediterranean since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Iran supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is being urged to quit by the U.S. and allies after 11 months of violence against protesters. The UN estimates that more than 5,400 Syrians had died by the end of last year, while Saudi Arabia says the death toll is at least 7,000.

Dempsey told CNN it’s too early to arm the Syrian opposition because it’s difficult to identify.

“I think intervening in Syria would be very difficult,” he said. Syria is “an arena right now for all of the various interests to play out. And what I mean by that is you’ve got great power involvement: Turkey clearly has an interest, a very important interest, Russia has a very important interest, Iran has an interest.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Biggs in Tokyo at sbiggs3@bloomberg.net Katarzyna Klimasinska in Washington at kklimasinska@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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