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Barak says Israeli decision on Iran strike remains ‘far off’

Defense chief Ehud Barak, second from left, says a decision on whether to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities remains far off. (Jim Hollander/AP)

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday that Israel was “very far off” from making a decision on a possible strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. The remarks appeared to be part of an effort to allay U.S. concerns that Israel is preparing for an attack despite Washington’s objections.

Barak was interviewed on Army Radio on the eve of a visit to Israel by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. Martin Dempsey is scheduled to arrive Thursday for talks with Barak and the Israeli army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and possibly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It will be Dempsey’s first official trip to Israel since he assumed his post in September.

While the agenda has not been disclosed, the talks are expected to focus on responses to Iran’s nuclear development effort, which Tehran says is for peaceful pur­poses.

Israel, which views Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, has repeatedly hinted that it could take military action should international sanctions fail to halt what it says is an effort to develop atomic weapons.

Asked in the radio interview whether the United States had pressed for notice of a possible Israeli strike on Iran, Barak said: “We haven’t made a decision to go ahead with this matter. We have no date for making decisions. The whole thing is very far off. . . . I don’t want to provide estimates. It’s certainly not urgent. . . . I don’t suggest that we deal with this as if it’s about to happen tomorrow.”

Barak added that Washington and Israel “respect one another’s freedom of decision.”

U.S. officials are reportedly pushing Israel to allow time for international sanctions on Iran to take effect. Dempsey’s visit comes a week after President Obama discussed the issue in a telephone call with Netanyahu.

Israel announced Monday that a major joint Israeli-U.S. missile defense exercise had been postponed, a move widely interpreted as an effort to defuse tensions with Tehran, which recently held naval exercises near the Strait of Hormuz. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman attributed the postponement to regional “tensions and instability,” and a spokesman for Netanyahu said “it was not the right timing” for the drill.

While holding out the possibility of military action, Israeli leaders have recently made conflicting statements on the effectiveness of the stepped-up international sanctions on Iran.

Netanyahu said Saturday in the Weekend Australian newspaper that “for the first time I see Iran wobble under the sanctions.” If the sanctions were backed up by a clear threat of possible military action by the international community, led by the United States, he added, “Iran may consider not going through the pain.”

But in remarks Monday to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of Israel’s parliament, Netanyahu said that the sanctions were ineffective, said a participant who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed. Netanyahu predicted that without significant steps against the Iranian central bank and Tehran’s ability to export oil, Iran would proceed with its nuclear program, the source said.

On Sunday, Moshe Yaalon, a vice prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, told Israel Radio that the Obama administration’s failure to impose tougher sanctions was “a disappointment.” Yaalon said Obama was trying to avoid triggering a rise in oil prices during an election year.

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