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Israeli Deputy PM Says 'Clock Ticking' On Iran

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad first announced in Mashhad on April 11, 2006 that Iran had enriched uranium.
GENEVA (Reuters) -- World powers have a good chance of forcing Iran to stop atomic projects with bomb-making potential if they toughen political and economic leverage, but there is no time to lose, an Israeli official has said.

"The clock is ticking," Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said in a Reuters interview, adding any delay would only make the issue harder to solve and there was a risk Iran's neighbors would themselves seek nuclear arms if no progress was made soon.

"If there is enough political and economic action put together, there is a good chance that Iran will listen to reason. I don't think they are irrational," he said.

The United States, Germany, France, and Britain have threatened Iran with a fourth round of UN sanctions if it continues enriching uranium and refuses to clear up concerns that it has conducted extensive research into how to build a nuclear weapon.

Iran insists the work is a civilian electricity program.

Israel is assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, but does not discuss this under an "ambiguity" policy billed as deterring its enemies while avoiding provocations. Meridor said he saw no need for Israel to review that policy.

Israel says a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its existence and points to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's calls for Israel to be wiped off the map.

That has raised concerns that Israel could ultimately carry out a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

Meridor, also minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy, declined to elaborate on previous Israeli hints of strikes against its foe or give a precise estimate of when he believed Iran would attain the capability to make a nuclear weapon.

But he said that ability was "not very far away" and if world powers including Russian and China rapidly combined efforts they could dissuade Iran from seeking weapons and end any perception of Western weakness on the issue.

"I don't want to go into details but they are going in that direction.... It's not in the distant future," he said, speaking on the sidelines of a conference about global issues hosted by Britain's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Uranium Enrichment

"The clock is ticking, in the sense that when nothing is done [to dissuade Iran], something [enrichment] is done all the time. Time is relevant and of the essence here. How long? I don't want to go into that here.... The trend is clear."

Iran on August 9 handed over a five-page proposal that offered wide-ranging talks with the West but was silent on its nuclear program. On September 11, the United States said it would accept Iran's offer of wide-ranging talks with major powers despite its stated refusal to discuss its nuclear programme.

Meridor said he had not read the Iranian proposal and declined comment on it, but he added that it was important that there was no perception of international weakness.

"I remember that in 2003 they suspended enrichment because the Americans looked strong enough after the invasion of Iraq."

"Now there may be a perception, which I think is wrong, of a weakening America -- [problems like] north Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the economic situation in America."

Meridor suggested that Iranian domestic political turmoil was not directly relevant to international calculations on the country's nuclear program. "There is no connection," he said.