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Quick Iran curbs may obviate need for strike call: Israel

By William Maclean

MUNICH (Reuters) - Iran "will blink" if sanctions aimed at deterring it from building a nuclear bomb are imposed rapidly, meaning outside powers may never need to decide on possible armed action, an Israeli minister said on Friday.

Speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in Germany, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon added that the key point of international concern should be the amount of enriched uranium Iran has managed to bury at a deep site at Fordow, its best sheltered nuclear site south of Tehran.

Ayalon was responding to a U.S. newspaper report that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believed Israel was likely to bomb Iran within months to stop it building a nuclear bomb.

He added: "I don't want to get into specifics because I don't think we may necessarily reach that fork in the road of taking such a decision by all of us in the international community, if indeed sanctions will be imposed now, and the Iranians will stop completely their illegal activities now, then we may not even need to discuss such issues."

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Panetta was concerned about the increased likelihood Israel would launch an attack over the next few months. CNN said it confirmed the report, citing a senior Obama administration official, who declined to be identified.

Israel, widely believed to possess the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, views Iran's uranium enrichment projects as a major threat and has not ruled out the use of military force to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Iran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.

Washington and the European Union imposed tighter sanctions on Iran in recent weeks in a drive to force Tehran to provide more information on its nuclear program.

CRUNCH TIME

Iran has said repeatedly it could close the vital Strait of Hormuz shipping lane if sanctions succeed in preventing it from exporting crude, a move Washington said it would not tolerate.

Israel's military intelligence chief said on Thursday he estimated that Iran could make four atomic bombs by further enriching uranium it had already stockpiled, and could produce its first bomb within a year of deciding to build one.

In Munich, Ayalon said Israel and the United States "absolutely" agreed not only on the goal of stopping Iran getting the bomb but also on how to reach that goal.

He said there had been "very, very positive steps" in toughening curbs on Iran including EU sanctions, although some of these might only take affect gradually over some months.

"It is not enough yet in the sense that the lead time is a little bit too much, I believe the crunch should be now. It is a matter of weeks and months that can make a difference," he said.

"We know that Iran is actually accelerating its nuclear activities maybe to pre-empt sanctions, so this is why now is the time to do it, so the Iranians will blink. The Iranian regime, as fanatic, as radical, as dangerous as it is, it's not irrational when it comes to its own political survival."

"Now the dilemma will all be theirs. They will have the dilemma to stop or bear the consequences."

Asked if Israel's key concern was the amount of enriched uranium Iran was transferring to a site at Fordow from less well sheltered installations, he replied: "Absolutely."

Nuclear facilities at Fordow, about 160 km (100 miles) south of Tehran near the Iranian holy city of Qom, are believed by some experts to be about 80 meters (260 feet) underground.

Experts say this is probably at or beyond the maximum depth that even very big conventional bombs can reach. Some say the United States is the only country with any chance of damaging the Fordow chamber using just conventional air power.

The vulnerability to air attack of the chamber at Fordow, beneath a former missile base controlled by the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, came into sharper focus on January 9 when the United Nations nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran had started enriching uranium at the site.

The same day a State Department spokeswoman declared that if Iran was enriching uranium to 20 percent at Fordow this would be a "further escalation" of its pattern of violating its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Ayalon said Israel saw "continued enrichment not just to 3.5 percent but also at 20 percent, which is clearly not for civil use but for military use."

"We see them also trying to expedite hardening their installations so they will reach an immunity zone, where some action may not be as effective, and this is why the time is so much of the essence."

Iran's move to make uranium refined to a fissile purity of 20 percent -- compared with 3.5 percent normally used to fuel power plants -- has raised concern in Israel and the West as this moved it closer to weapons-grade material of 90 percent.

(Reporting by William Maclean and Michele Sani)

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