Israel tries to stand aside from U.S.-Iranian conflict

By Jeffrey Heller
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz gestures during an interview with Reuters in Athens

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel sought on Tuesday to stand aside from the conflict between its close ally the United States and Iran, and said it was unclear whether Tehran's abandonment of uranium enrichment limits meant it was on a path toward a nuclear weapon.

The unusually muted Israeli comments on Iran, Israel's arch-enemy, emerged after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet met on Monday amid concern over Iranian retaliation for the U.S. strike in Baghdad on Friday that killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran's most celebrated military commander.

Asked on Israel Radio whether Iran was "on the way to an atomic bomb", Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, one of Netanyahu's closest lieutenants and a member of the security cabinet, said: "It's too early to say."

Iran, which has denied seeking to build nuclear arms, said on Sunday it would abandon limitations on enriching uranium, which can be used to make nuclear warheads.

Iran had already breached many of the restrictions of a deal with world powers designed to curb its nuclear programme, agreed in 2015, which U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

But Iran also said on Sunday it would continue to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog and could reverse its steps if U.S. sanctions were removed.

Steinitz reiterated Netanyahu's pledge that Israel would never let Iran to build a nuclear arsenal, a line that Trump has echoed emphatically.

Asked what action Israel should take now, Steinitz said: "There is tension between Iran and the United States and we're not involved, so I don't want to relate to it. We're standing on the sidelines and observing events."


NUCLEAR WEAPONS

Netanyahu has long said the nuclear deal would not prevent Tehran getting the bomb, and he has in the past held out the option of a unilateral strike against Iran to prevent this.

But he largely stepped away publicly from that line after the nuclear deal was signed, focusing instead on pushing for the agreement to be scrapped and sanctions restored.

Any conflict now would stretch Israel at a time when it is deep in political stalemate after inconclusive elections in April and September, with a new vote due on March 2.

Israel is widely believed to have a nuclear arsenal but has declined for decades to confirm or deny it. In an apparent slip of the tongue on Sunday, Netanyahu described Israel as a nuclear power before correcting himself with an embarrassed smile.

The secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council was quoted as saying on Tuesday that Tehran was considering 13 "revenge scenarios" for Soleimani's killing.

On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem issued a security alert to American citizens in Israel and the Palestinian territories citing the possibility of rocket strikes, without mentioning Iran.

Leaks from the security cabinet meeting to Israeli media quoted unidentified Israeli intelligence officials as saying the probability of an imminent Iranian attack on Israel was low.

Israel has also tangled with Iran in recent years over the presence of pro-Iranian militias in neighbouring Syria, having fought the Iranian-backed Hezbollah force in Lebanon in 2006.

Israel has frequently attacked those forces in Syria and is determined to prevent them becoming permanently established.


(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Kevin Liffey)