JERUSALEM – Iran is now capable of producing atomic weapons, Israel's top military intelligence officer said Sunday, sounding the highest-level warning that Israel's arch-enemy has achieved independent nuclear capability.
At a Cabinet meeting, the chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, did not say Iran already has an atomic bomb, participants said. However, he said, Iran has "crossed the threshold" and has the expertise and materials needed for one.
The participants spoke on condition of anonymity because the Cabinet meeting was closed. They said Yadlin told them that Iran continues to accumulate uranium for enrichment and hopes to exploit the Obama administration's intention to open a dialogue as a cover for developing nuclear weapons.
Yadlin's comments follow a similar assessment by the U.S. military chief, Adm. Mike Mullen. He said a week ago that Iran has enough fissile material to build a bomb now.
Israeli officials have long identified a nuclear Iran as the most serious threat to the Jewish state. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has repeatedly called for destruction of Israel, and Iran has tested long-range missiles that could strike Israel.
Israel's long-held policy is that the world must cooperate to defuse the Iranian nuclear threat. While not directly threatening to take out Iran's nuclear facilities, Israel has avoided taking the military option off the table.
Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, who is putting together the next Israeli government, for years has said that Iran represents an existential threat to the Jewish state. He is seen as more likely than other Israeli leaders to order an attack.
However, most experts believe that wiping out the Iranian nuclear program is beyond the ability of Israel's military. In 1982 the Israeli air force destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in a lightning strike, but Iran's facilities are scattered around the country, some of them underground.
Iran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.
Israel has been watching carefully how Washington develops its policy toward Iran. Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, President Barack Obama has called for diplomatic contacts with Iran as a way of persuading its rulers to drop their nuclear ambitions.
In talks last week with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli officials raised concerns about Iran's intentions and questions about the Obama administration's approach.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he did not object in principle to the idea of U.S-Iran talks, but he warned that Iran could use the contacts to stall while it readies its nuclear arsenal. Olmert said that would be unacceptable.
Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher said Yadlin's determination must be taken seriously. "It clearly renders the entire issue of how to deal with Iran both for the Obama administration and for Israel more urgent," he said. "It affects possible diplomatic initiatives, sanctions and the military option."
Last week an Iranian leader declared that Iran's missiles can strike all of Israel's nuclear facilities. The main Israeli reactor is in the southern Negev desert, and a smaller research reactor is closer to the center of the country.
Experts quoted in foreign publications believe Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons. Israel neither confirms nor denies reports about its nuclear capabilities.