Iran closer than ever to weapons-grade uranium, says former top defense official

A former top defense official and Mossad intelligence chief warned on Saturday that Iran was closer than ever to being able to produce weapons-grade uranium and that Israel was capable of attacking Tehran’s nuclear program even if the United States did not back it.

Zohar Palti, former head of the Defense Ministry’s political-military office and former Mossad intelligence director, said Iran is days or weeks away from enriching uranium to military-grade levels needed for nuclear weapons production.

Iran “is at a more advanced level than I can remember when it comes to uranium enrichment,” Palti told the Times of Israel political correspondent Tal Schneider at an event in Ramat Hasharon.

“They are days or weeks away from enriching uranium to 90 percent, which is military grade,” he said.

Iran’s state media announced last month that it had begun producing uranium enriched to 60% purity at the country’s underground Fordo nuclear plant, in addition to enrichment to the same level at a plant in Natanz that it said had started in 2019.

Enrichment to 60% purity is a short technical step away from weapons grade levels of 90%. Nonproliferation experts have warned in recent months that Iran now has enough 60% enriched uranium to reprocess it into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.

Palti noted that enrichment to such a level “does not mean that they can immediately build a nuclear weapon.

“But it’s very bad, and we’ve never been closer to that,” he said.

The comments from Palti, who retired from a 40-year career in Israel’s security establishment several months ago, marked one of the first times he publicly addressed the Iranian issue since resigning.

Several centrifuge machines line up in a room at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, on April 17, 2021. (Screenshot/Islam Republic Iran Broadcasting-IRIB, via AP)

Palti said that Israel has the military capability to attack Iran’s nuclear plants, noting that it should not necessarily wait for the green light from the United States, but rather make “serious decisions” about whether to lead such an offensive.

“I am not implying that Israel is capable, I am saying that it is,” he said, while stressing the importance of coordinating with Washington.

“One of the things that Americans appreciate most is our ability to make our own decisions, to ensure our security,” he added, referring to Israeli attacks on nuclear facilities in Syria and Iraq that he had carried out alone without the active support of USA.

Palti noted that the heated political atmosphere did not lend itself to the kind of social cohesion necessary for Israel to face a theater of war.

“If we come to such a scenario… it will not be a matter of politics or religion. Lebanon has more than 100,000 rockets and Iran has precision-guided missiles. The Israeli home front will suffer… Israel will have to function as a single fist,” he said.

Israeli F-35 fighter jets fly in formation during the Blue Flag military exercise in October 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

He added that policymakers could not afford to treat the Iranian issue as disconnected from other regional security concerns.

“Iran is not an independent problem,” Palti said. “Everything is connected. We cannot move forward on the Iranian issue without being aware of what is happening in our region, in the West Bank, on the issue of maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount and protecting minority rights.”

Palti warned against escalating tensions atop the Temple Mount, saying Israel’s relationship with Jordan is its greatest strategic asset.

“The national security of each of the countries is intertwined,” he argued. The State of Israel is interested “in Jordan being strong and unshakable. We have a strong and serious security system. The IDF’s next chief of staff, Herzi Halevy, will explain to cabinet ministers what is at stake and what is the meaning of violating the status quo on the Temple Mount.”

He estimated that “the incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will not want to change the status quo on the Temple Mount either.”

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