JERUSALEM: Any decision by Israel on whether to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities remains "very far away," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday as tension mounted between Iran and the West.
"We don’t have a decision to go forward with these things. We don’t have a decision or a date for taking such a decision. This whole thing is very far away," Barak told army radio.
Washington has been spearheading a campaign for much tougher sanctions against the Iranian economy, in a bid to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program which Israel and Western governments suspect masks a drive for a weapons capability.
Barak said Israel did not believe that Iran had yet made a decision to move to actual production of a nuclear warhead.
"The Iranians have not ended the oversight exercised by the International Atomic Energy Agency," he said.
"They haven’t done that because they know that that would constitute proof of the military nature of their nuclear program and that would provoke stronger international sanctions or other types of action against their country," he said.
Israel, which has the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear arsenal, has said an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state.
It has not ruled out resorting to military action to prevent any possibility of the Islamic republic developing one.
Russia warned on Wednesday that any strike on Iran would be a "catastrophe" that would have the "severest consequences."
"As for the chances of this catastrophe happening, you would have to ask those constantly mentioning it as an option that remains on the table," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Reports have suggested a divide between Israel and Washington on the question of military action against Iran, with the United States reportedly pressuring the Jewish state to hold back.
But Barak, speaking on the eve of an expected visit by top US military chief Martin Dempsey, denied Israel was under pressure from the US administration.
"The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is not coming with a view to putting pressure of the state of Israel… The dialogue between our two countries is based on mutual respect," he said.
"The United States knows that Israel takes American considerations into account, but the Israeli government, the prime minister, and the defense minister are responsible for the security of the state of Israel and we cannot set aside this responsibility for anyone, including our American friends."
On Sunday, Israeli defense officials announced that a major joint exercise with the United States would be delayed until later this year.
Israeli officials said that the maneuvers, originally scheduled for spring, had been delayed because of fears they might further ramp up tensions in the region.
The United States, which has expressed serious concern over Iran’s nuclear program, has pushed for tough sanctions targeting its oil exports and financial institutions.
But Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have said the current sanctions do not go far enough, and accused Washington of dragging its feet.
Barak said on Wednesday he was happy to see tougher measures against Iran being considered, but that the current sanctions would be insufficient to compel "the extremist regime in power in Iran to renounce its nuclear activities."
Washington has a longstanding ban on Iranian oil imports and last year barred foreign companies that do business with Iran’s central bank, which clears its oil receipts, from working with the US financial sector.
The European Union is mulling phasing in an embargo on oil purchases that could go into full force by July, but other countries have been more circumspect.
US ally Japan has indicated it is having second thoughts about a ban on imports, while Iran’s two biggest clients — China and India — have said they will ignore US-led pressure for an embargo.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful power generation and medical purposes only, and denies any ambition to develop a weapons capability.