Israel will launch military action to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon as soon as Christmas, intelligence chiefs have warned.
A report by a UN watchdog into Iran’s nuclear ambitions “˜completely discredits’ the Islamic nation’s protestations of innocence, according to Foreign Secretary William Hague.
The International Atomic Energy Agency found that Iran is developing a nuclear test facility, nuclear detonators and computer modelling for a nuclear warhead that would fit on an existing missile.
Sources say the understanding at the top of the British Government is that Israel will attempt to strike against the nuclear sites “˜sooner rather than later’ – with logistical support from the U.S.
A senior Foreign Office figure has revealed that ministers have been told to expect Israeli military action, adding: “˜We’re expecting something as early as Christmas, or very early in the new year.’
Officials believe President Barack Obama would have to support the Israelis or risk losing vital Jewish-American support in the next presidential election.
In recent weeks, Ministry of Defence sources confirmed that contingency plans have been drawn up in the event that the UK decided to support military action.
But the source ruled out direct British support, adding: “˜Of course we are not in favour of Iran developing a bomb – but do we think they’d use it: no.
“˜The bigger concern is it will be impossible to stop Saudi Arabia and Turkey from developing their own weapons.’
Mr Hague said Britain would push for more sanctions against Tehran when the IAEA committee meets later this month.
Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, vowed not to retreat “˜one iota’ from its nuclear programme.
In a statement on Middle Eastern affairs, the Foreign Secretary was critical of Israel’s “˜occupation’ of Palestinian land.
But he announced Britain will abstain on a UN vote later this week to give statehood to Palestinians.
Yesterday the Iranian president gave a passionate speech to thousands of supporters in central Iran, and broadcast on live state television, denouncing the UN report.
He hit out at the IAEA, saying it is discrediting itself by siding with 'baseless' U.S. claims that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
The U.S. has yet to comment on the findings, but France said it is ready to push for sanctions of 'an unprecedented scale' if Iran refuses to answer new questions about its nuclear programme.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that if Iran fails to answer concerns raised by the report, the international community should raise diplomatic pressure to a new level.
China isn't publicly commenting yet on the U.N. assessment in a likely sign that it will wait for Washington and Moscow to signal their intentions. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei yesterday said that Beijing is studying the report and repeated calls for dialogue and co-operation.
Speaking to supporters in the city of Shahrekord, Ahmadinejad said Iran will not stop its nuclear development, adopting a defiant position against the report, which could spur efforts for new sanctions against his country.
He said: 'If you think you can change the situation of the world through putting pressures on Iran, you are deadly wrong. The Iranian nation will not withdraw an iota.'
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, not weapons production.
Ahmadinejad's regime is already thought to have built a top-secret explosives test facility at a site in Parchin, just outside Tehran, where it is conducting experiments to develop a weapon.
Scientists are building hi-tech precision detonators which would be essential for a nuclear device, and developing a uranium core for a nuclear warhead, the UN said.
The report also lays bare that Iranian scientists are trying to mount a nuclear payload into their Shahab 3 missiles – which can reach Israel, Iran’s arch foe.
The report compiled by Yukiya Amano is the strongest sign yet that Iran seeks to build a nuclear arsenal, despite Tehran's insistence its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.
The document claims that while some of the suspected secret nuclear work by Iran can have peaceful purposes, 'others are specific to nuclear weapons.'
A 13-page attachment to the agency's Iran report details intelligence and IAEA research that shows Tehran working on all aspects of research toward making a nuclear weapon, including fitting a warhead onto a missile.
Ahead of the report's release, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned of a possible Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear programme.
He told Israel Radio that he did not expect any new U.N. sanctions on Tehran to persuade it to stop its nuclear defiance, adding: 'We continue to recommend to our friends in the world and to ourselves, not to take any option off the table.'
The 'all options on the table' phrase is often used by Israeli politicians to mean a military assault.
While some of the suspected secret nuclear work outlined in the annex could also be used for peaceful purposes, 'others are specific to nuclear weapons', the report claims.
Some of the information contained in the annex was new – including evidence of a large metal chamber at a military site for nuclear-related explosives testing.
The bulk, however, was a compilation and expansion of alleged work already partially revealed by the agency.
But a senior diplomat familiar with the report said its significance lay in its comprehensiveness, thereby reflecting that Iran apparently had engaged in all aspects of testing that were needed to develop such a weapon.
Also significant was the agency's decision to share most of what it knows or suspect about Iran's secret work with the 35-nation IAEA board and the U.N. Security Council after being stonewalled by Tehran in its attempts to probe such allegations.
Copies of the report went to board members and the council, which has imposed four sets of U.N. sanction on Tehran for refusing to stop activities that could be used to make a nuclear weapon and refusing to cooperate with IAEA attempts to fully understand its nuclear program.
The agency said the annex was based on more than 1,000 pages of intelligence and other information forwarded by more than 10 nations and material gathered by the IAEA itself.
The report suggests that Iran made computer models of a nuclear warhead and includes satellite imagery of a large steel container the IAEA believes is used for nuclear arms-related high explosives tests.
In remarks broadcast on state television, Ahmadinejad said that International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano was simply repeating U.S. allegations. 'He delivers the papers that American officials hand on him,' Ahmadinejad said.
'I am sorry that a person is heading the agency who has no power by himself and violates the agency's regulations, too.'
He repeated Iran's stance that it is not involved in making a nuclear weapon: 'They should know that if we want to remove the hand of the U.S. from the world, we do not need bombs and hardware. We work based on thoughts, culture and logic.'
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