Netanyahu and Ehud Barak
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (l) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) at an Israeli army base outside Gaza Strip. Israeli has been stepping up its rhetoric against Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. Reuters

Iran has temporarily stepped back from development of nuclear weapons, but the threat posed by Tehran will re-emerge again, probably next summer, claims Israel's top defense official.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, told The Daily Telegraph newspaper of Britain that the Iranians secretly used more than one-third (38 percent) of its medium-enriched uranium for peaceful, civilian purposes, thereby postponing construction of a nuclear bomb.

Nonetheless, he warned that economic sanctions by the West and diplomatic efforts would fail to completely dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear weapons ambitions. In 2013, Israel would again have to consider a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Speaking in London, Barak stated that since he became defense chief five years ago, Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium has increased from 850 kilograms to 6.8 tons.

But why has Iran delayed development of its nuclear weapons?

“There could be at least three explanations,” Barak stated.

“One is the public discourse about a possible Israeli or American operation deterred them from trying to come closer. It could probably be a diplomatic gambit that they have launched in order to avoid this issue culminating before the American election, just to gain some time. It could be a way of telling the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] 'oh we comply with our commitments’.”

In the event Iran ultimate;y successfully develops atomic weapons, that would prompt a deadly arms race in the Middle East, Barak warned.

“Saudi Arabia will turn nuclear within weeks – according to them,” he said. “Turkey will turn nuclear in several years. The new Egypt will have to follow”.

Eventually, the world would have to confront the “nightmare” of “nuclear material ending up in the hands of terrorist groups”.

Barak noted that the West shares Israel's fears.

“We all agree that the Iranians are determined to turn into a military nuclear power, and we all share the declaration that we are determined to prevent Iran from turning nuclear and all options are on the table,” he said. “We mean it – we expect others to mean it as well. So it’s not something just about us. But we, for obvious reasons, see the Iranian threat in much more concrete terms.”

Barak also reserved the right of Israel to act alone against an Iranian threat.

“When it comes to the very core of our security interests and, in a way, the future of Israel, we cannot delegate the responsibility for making decisions even into the hands of our most trusted and trustworthy ally,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we would be sorry if the Iranians come to the conclusion on their own. The opposite is true. But, if no one acts, we will have to contemplate action.”

He also noted: “Basically, it’s about the question of when they come into this zone of immunity, where no Israeli surgical attack, probably somewhat later not even an American surgical attack, can delay them significantly. That’s the issue that bothers us.”

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on a trip to France, gained the promise of president Francois Hollande of even tougher sanctions against Iran.

"The sanctions are taking a bite out of Iran's economy ... unfortunately they have not stopped the Iranian program," Netanyahu said in Paris.

"Given the history of the Jewish people, I would not sit by and write off a threat by those who say they are going to annihilate us."

However, Hollande declined to support any military strike on Iran.

"[A nuclear Iran is] a threat that cannot be accepted by France," Hollande said.

"We must make sure that through pressure, sanctions and later through negotiations, Iran renounces its intention to have access to nuclear weapons. I am working in that spirit," he said.