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Israeli official says decision to attack Iran is ‘very far off’

Defense minister speaks as West looks at sanctions

MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP PHOTO/AFP

JERUSALEM - Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Israel said yesterday that any decision on attacking Iran because of its nuclear program was “very far off,’’ apparently seeking to lower the tone of increasingly nervous discourse as powers maneuver in advance of European moves to intensify sanctions on Iran.

At the same time, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia renewed his country’s aversion to sanctions and military threats against Iran, while Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi of Iran said his country was ready to resume negotiations with the outside powers - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - trying to broker a settlement.

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Salehi said during a visit to Turkey yesterday that negotiations were underway about the venue and date, Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency reported, and that the talks “will most probably be held in Istanbul.’’

The previous negotiations - also in Istanbul - broke off a year ago when Iran presented its own set of preconditions, including a lifting of sanctions, that the West considered unacceptable.

Salehi made similar remarks about a resumption of the talks during a visit to Tehran two weeks ago by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, and some European officials have interpreted his remarks as an effort to buy time just days before European foreign ministers are to meet next week to discuss possible measures to curb Iran’s critical oil exports.

Speaking at a news conference in Moscow, Lavrov took issue with Western policy on Iran, saying a military strike would be a “catastrophe.’’

He said sanctions being proposed against Iran were couched in terms of nuclear nonproliferation but were “seriously intended to have a smothering effect on the Iranian economy and the Iranian population, probably in the hopes of provoking discontent.’’

Iran says its uranium enrichment efforts are for peaceful civilian purposes, but that assertion jars increasingly with Western insistence, supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iranian scientists have been working toward building nuclear weapons.

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Twisting the spiral of regional tension, Israel has been pressing for more aggressive and immediate US-led sanctions against Iran while the Iranians have threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, the maritime conduit for a fifth of the world’s oil.

An Iranian lawmaker claimed yesterday that President Obama called for direct talks with Iran in a secret letter to the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader that also warned Iran against closing the Strait of Hormuz.

The Obama administration denied there was such a letter.

Iran is threatening to close the waterway because of US sanctions on its nuclear program.

Conservative lawmaker Ali Motahari revealed the content of the letter days after the Obama administration said it was warning Iran through public and private channels against any action that threatens the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.

Barak’s remarks in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio also came ahead of a visit to Israel by the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey. Israeli media commentators have suggested that Dempsey was coming in part to warn Israel against going it alone in striking Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Barak denied that, saying that military chiefs “are concerned with formulating different military options and bringing their views to the political leadership, and don’t deal with delivering diplomatic messages.’’

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Still, efforts seem to be under way on both sides to reduce regional anxieties.

Israel and the United States agreed this week to postpone major joint missile-defense exercises scheduled for the spring.

In the interview with Army Radio yesterday Barak reiterated the Israeli assessment that Iran has not started building nuclear weapons.

“The Iranians have not ended the oversight exercised by the International Atomic Energy Agency,’’ he said, adding, “They have not done that because they know that, that would constitute proof of the military nature of their nuclear program and that would provoke stronger international sanctions or other types of action against their country.’’

Israel has kept open the possibility of military action on Iran.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.