Has Ehud Barak Gone Soft on Iran?

The Israeli defense minister, once thought of as a major proponent of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, appears to be changing his tune -- at least for the moment.

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Israel's Defense Minister Barak arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on April 22, 2012. (Reuters)

In a world that's used to hearing strong rhetoric from Israel regarding Iran's nuclear program, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's interviews this week with British media seemed discordant. Speaking to Britain's Daily Telegraph, Barak said that Iran had used up to one-third of its enriched uranium to make fuel rods for a medical research reactor. And that by doing so, it had delayed "the moment of truth" when Iran will be able to develop nuclear weapons "by eight to 10 months."

Barak could only speculate on Tehran's motives for the move, saying that possibly the ruling ayatollahs wanted to reduce tensions over the issue until after the November 6 presidential election in the United States. Or perhaps, he said, Tehran was attempting to convince the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it's cooperating with demands regarding the program. Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes and points out that it -- unlike Israel -- has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Barak's statements come after months of tough talk from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials. At the UN General Assembly in New York just last month, Netanyahu stood at the podium with a drawing of a bomb and pointed ominously to a "red line" that Tehran must not be allowed to cross. "Ladies and gentlemen, the relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb. The relevant question is at what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb," Netanyahu said. "The red line must be drawn on Iran's nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target."

In the latest interviews, however, Barak stressed that Israel's position is essentially unchanged: it still believes Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons; Israel still believes that action must be taken to prevent that before Iran amasses sufficient enriched uranium to produce a weapon; Israel retains the right to take unilateral action; and Israel will never delegate responsibility for its security to even "the most trusted and trustworthy ally."

Speaking to the BBC on October 30, Barak repeated that no options were off the table. "We are determined not to let [Iran] turn nuclear," he said. "I believe leaders of the world when they say that no option is off the table. When they say it, I hope they mean it. We mean it."

An Israeli 'War Cabinet' Coming?

Barak's comments come as domestic politics in Israel seem to have taken a turn to the right in anticipation of an early general election to be held on January 22. Netanyahu's Likud party this week announced it was forming a bloc with nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, an alliance that many analysts predict could be formidable in the next election.

But it means it's impossible for Netanyahu to position himself -- as he did in 2009 -- as a center-right option. Israelis who were concerned by the bellicose nature of Netanyahu's rhetoric in recent months may be downright alarmed by what they could hear from a joint Netanyahu-Lieberman ticket. Lieberman is an outspoken nationalist who openly admires Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In addition, there has been speculation that the hawkish Lieberman could be moved to the Defense Ministry. Centrist politician Tzipi Livni told the "Jerusalem Post" that "Lieberman is the one who threatened to bomb the Aswan Dam [in Egypt]. Is this the defense minister that Israel needs right now?" The editor in chief of Haaretz, Aluf Benn, wrote that the alliance would create a "war cabinet that will lead Israel into a confrontation with Iran."

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.