Despite Iran's denials that its move to step up enrichment of uranium has anything to do with building a nuclear bomb, Israel is taking no chances.
"Iran is racing forward to produce nuclear weapons," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of European diplomats yesterday, calling for tough and immediate action by the international community as Iran moved ahead with plans to enrich uranium to the 20-per-cent level.
"This means not moderate sanctions, or watered-down sanctions," Mr. Netanyahu said. "This means crippling sanctions and these sanctions must be applied right now."
While weapons-grade uranium is enriched to contain at least 90 per cent of the fissile isotope U-235, Iran's intention to move to 20 per cent enrichment from the current 3.5 per cent is considered an ominous development. It is the low level of enrichment, experts say, that is the most laborious and time-consuming part of the process.
"The move to 90 per cent requires no further reconfiguration of the equipment," said an Israeli expert, "just a little more time." That's why action must be taken soon, he said.
In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama said the international community is moving "fairly quickly" to impose new sanctions on Iran.
"Despite the posturing that the nuclear power is only for civilian use ... [the Iranians]in fact continue to pursue a course that would lead to weaponization," said Mr. Obama, "and that is not acceptable to the international community."
The European Union said it "stands ready to take the necessary steps to accompany the UN Security Council process."
"Taking enrichment to the level of 20 per cent adds to the deficit of confidence in the nature of Iran's nuclear program," the EU's nuclear envoy, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement. "This has already been aggravated by Iran's unwillingness to engage in meaningful talks."
Even Russia, Iran's traditional nuclear partner, questioned Tehran's intentions.
"Iran's decision to start its own enrichment of uranium ... heightens doubts on the sincerity of Iran's intentions to end the international community's existing concerns," said a statement from the Foreign Ministry.
Of the five permanent members of the Security Council, only China expressed any degree of support for Iran.
"I hope the relevant parties will step up efforts and push for progress in the dialogue and negotiations," said Ma Zhaoxu, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Iran says it needs a supply of uranium enriched to 20 per cent to fuel a research reactor producing radioisotopes to treat cancer patients and to manufacture radiography materials.
"Nonsense," said a former senior Israeli official, noting that the International Atomic Energy Agency brokered a deal last fall that would provide Iran with fuel for its medical reactor in exchange for its low-enriched uranium. The medical fuel would be structured in such a way that it could not be used for weapons.
"If they were serious about meeting humanitarian needs, they would have accepted the offer to swap their low-enriched uranium" for the higher-grade isotopes, the former official said.
Tehran has said it is ready "in principle" to agree to the swap, but insists that not all of its low-enriched uranium be shipped out of the country at once, as stipulated by the IAEA.
For the former Israeli official, that leads to only one conclusion: "This stuff is either being produced for political purposes - to wave the flag - or it's for a bomb.
"Of course, the two are closely linked," he added.
Speaking on a matter of the utmost importance to Israel, the Prime Minister chose his words carefully.
"He wanted to publicly remind people of the promises President Obama has made," said the former Israeli official, "and to provide a yardstick if the U.S. fails to deliver."
Israelis point out that they have supported Mr. Obama as he has tried to deal with Iran through dialogue, and now through sanctions. They want him to know there is only one other approach should sanctions fail: military action.
"Last year was the year of public relations," said Haaretz columnist Amir Oren. "2010 is the year of pressure."
"The crushing blow that comes after the pressure will not be dealt before next year," Mr. Oren acknowledged.
But come it will.
"Iran is on a roll," said the former official. "They have not retreated from a single position they have taken; they haven't even stopped.
"They defy you, spit in your face and move ahead."