VIENNA (AP) — A senior Israeli official warned Iran on Wednesday to stop its "direct and blunt threats" against his country, telling a 155-nation nuclear conference the Jewish state is ready to defend itself against any nation that menaces its existence.
Israeli nuclear chief Shaul Chorev avoided any suggestion that his country was contemplating a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities — a scenario that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is increasingly suggesting may be necessary to stop what he says is Tehran's path toward atomic arms.
Still, Chorev's hard-edged comments to the International Atomic Energy Agency's annual general conference were another reminder of the enmity between the archrivals that have led to highly charged tensions the United States and others fear may spiral into armed conflict.
Iran denies any interest in owning nuclear weapons. It says it is enriching uranium solely to make reactor fuel and for medical research. But Israel, which is widely considered to have such arms, asserts Tehran wants ultimately to enrich to levels higher than reactor grade to create weapons-grade material used to arm warheads.
Israel, the United States, and allies of the two nations have provided intelligence to the IAEA on alleged Iranian nuclear weapons research and development, and while Iran dismisses the intelligence as fabricated, the IAEA takes the allegations seriously.
Alluding to Iranian statements questioning Israel's right to exist, Chorev warned that his country "does not remain indifferent in view of such direct and blunt threats."
"Israel is competent to deter its enemies and to defend itself," he told the meeting.
It has been Israel, however, that has done the most recent threatening. Arguing that diplomatic efforts and economic penalties have had no effect, hard-liners say that may leave military strikes as the only alternative to stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a proponent of such an option, made a direct appeal to American voters on Sunday to elect a president willing to draw a "red line" with Iran.
In the past week, Netanyahu has urged President Barack Obama and other world leaders to state clearly at what point Iran would face a military attack. But Obama and his top aides, who repeatedly say all options remain on the table, have pointed to shared U.S.-Israeli intelligence that suggests Iran hasn't decided yet whether to build a bomb, despite pursuing the technology, and that there would be time for action beyond toughened sanctions already in place.
Seeking to prove Israel wrong — and to blunt the possibility of a Middle East War — the United States and five other world powers are attempting to revive stalled high-level nuclear talks with Iran that were downgraded after a Moscow meeting in June ended without resolving a stalemate carried over from previous negotiations.
A Western diplomat told The Associated Press on Wednesday that U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will meet with the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany Sept. 27 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. They are to review the results of talks Tuesday in Istanbul between EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and top Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
The diplomat, who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about confidential diplomatic maneuvering with Iran, said Jalili "expressed huge interest in the (negotiating) process" at that meeting. Ashton, in turn said that the Iranians "have to move and make progress" on demands that they curb uranium enrichment that is above reactor fuel grade levels — particular at their underground facility in Fordo, southwest of Tehran, which is most resistant to bomb and missile attack.
Iran has resisted any attempt to limit enrichment activities, saying it has a right to enrich for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty.
In Istanbul earlier Wednesday, Jalili offered few concrete details about the meeting, but said he and Ashton had assessed "common points" reached by technical teams looking into the issue and had discussed "what can be done for a new cooperation."
Beyond criticizing Iran for its nuclear defiance, the United States and Israel also accuse the Islamic Republic of military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and Chorev, the Israeli nuclear chief, said Wednesday that Iran's "finger prints are manifested in Syria" in Assad's attempt to put down the increasingly violent 18-month insurgency that has left more than 27,000 dead.
Like Iran, Syria is also under IAEA investigation for allegedly hiding a nuclear program. The probe was sparked by a 2007 Israeli air strike that the United States says destroyed a nearly finished reactor that would have produced plutonium. Like enriched uranium, plutonium can be used to make warheads.
Denying any clandestine nuclear work, Bassam Sabbagh, Syria's chief IAEA envoy, took Israel to task for threatening Iran, its ally, and described the Jewish state's undeclared nuclear program as posing "a threat to the region's security and stability."