By Haaretz Correspondents and Agencies , By Amos Harel and Yossi Melman
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Defense Minister Amir Peretz in Tel Aviv yesterday, saying diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program are working.
At a joint press conference with Peretz, Gates said the men agreed that the diplomatic pressure is working. "We agreed it was important to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem through diplomacy, which appears to be working," Gates said. Peretz told reporters during the press conference that "2007 will be a critical year for thwarting the Iranian plans.
"Iran presents a threat not only to Israel, but to the entire free world," he said. "This problem is of concern to all of us and we are certain that the world will not stand aside. We expect that the U.S. and the world will stand by us regarding the Iranian nuclear issue," he added. "I congratulate the U.S. on the UN Security Council decision regarding sanctions."
While Peretz welcomed the diplomatic efforts, the defense minister said Israel could not rule out using other options.
Gates will meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni today, in the first visit by a U.S. defense secretary in eight years.
The meeting between Gates and Peretz focused on a number of issues: the Iranian threat, the implications of the ongoing fighting in Iraq, the recent Syrian statements that were hostile to Israel and the defense ties between the U.S. and Israel.
Gates noted that the UN Security Council has already passed two resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, a process that can be used to develop nuclear weapons. Gates said the diplomatic efforts should be given a chance to succeed. "The international community is united in telling Iran what it needs to do with respect to its nuclear program," he said. "These things don't work overnight, but it seems to me clearly the preferable course to keep our focus on the diplomatic initiatives - particularly because of the united front of the international community at this point."
Iran has started feeding small amounts of uranium gas into centrifuges that can enrich it to weapons-grade level and is already running more than 1,300 of the machines, according to an International Atomic Energy Agency document obtained by The Associated Press yesterday.
The confidential document - a letter to Iranian officials from a senior IAEA staff member - also protests an Iranian decision to prevent agency inspectors to visit the country's heavy water reactor that, when built, will produce plutonium. Enriched uranium and plutonium can both be used for the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
Last week, Iran said it had begun operating 3,000 centrifuges at its Natanz facility - nearly 10 times the previously known number. The U.S., Britain, France and others criticized the announcement, but experts - and several world powers - expressed skepticism that Iran's claims were true and diplomats in Vienna familiar with the state of the program told AP they were greatly exaggerated.
If so, the one-page letter reflected a swift advance in the program. A little over two weeks ago, those diplomats had said Tehran was running only a little more than 600 centrifuges, and had not introduced any uranium gas into them. And even IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei had said last week that Iran was operating only several hundred centrifuges at Natanz.
The letter, signed by IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen and dated April 18 - yesterday - said the agency wanted to take note of the information provided by Iran ... that Iran has put into operation 1,312 centrifuges - the machines used to spin the gas into enriched uranium.
The letter also cited Iranian information to the agency that some UF6 is being fed into the centrifuges, referring to the uranium gas that can be enriched to levels potent enough to be used for nuclear arms.