Harry de Quetteville, The Sunday Telegraph, with files from Reuters
JERUSALEM - Israel has appointed a top general to oversee a war against Iran, prompting speculation it is preparing for possible military action against Tehran's nuclear program. And yesterday Iran said it would never stop uranium enrichment, despite a looming UN deadline designed to ensure it cannot develop nuclear weapons.
Major-General Elyezer Shkedy, Israel's air force chief, will be overall commander for the "Iran front," according to military sources who spoke to The Sunday Telegraph. News of the appointment comes days before the United Nations deadline expires.
Chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani reiterated Iran's stance that it was ready to hold talks on its nuclear program. Six world powers have offered a package of economic incentives to the Islamic Republic if it halts uranium enrichment.
"Iran will continue its uranium enrichment. We want to produce our own nuclear fuel," Mr. Larijani was quoted by the student news agency ISNA. "We will never stop it ... Any measure to deprive Iran of its right will not change our mind about our aim."
But the UN Security Council has told Iran to suspend atomic fuel work by Aug. 31 or face possible sanctions. The West suspects Iran is secretly trying to make nuclear weapons, but Tehran says its only aim is to generate electricity.
Despite Iran's offer last week to engage in "serious talks" on the matter, Israel fears even more than other Western nations that the offer is simply to buy time for Tehran to secure all the technology it needs to build a bomb.
"Israel is becoming extremely concerned now with what they see as Iran's delaying tactics," said Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli expert on Iran. "They [the planners] think negotiations are going nowhere and Iran is becoming a major danger for Israel. Now they are getting ready for living with a nuclear Iran or letting the military take care of it."
The prospect of Israel "living with" a nuclear Iran appears remote. Last week, Giora Eiland, Israel's former national security advisor, told reporters that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, would "sacrifice half of Iran for the sake of eliminating Israel."President Ahmadinejad "has a religious conviction that Israel's demise is essential to the restoration of Muslim glory, that the Zionist thorn in the heart of the Islamic nations must be removed," Mr. Eiland said.
Contacted yesterday, Ofir Gendelman of the Israeli embassy in Ottawa refused to comment on the general's appointment.
Maj.-Gen. Shkedy, who was appointed to the role two months ago, will co-ordinate intelligence gathered by Israel's foreign spy agency, the Mossad, and military sources, in order to draw up battle plans. Then, during any war with Iran, he will command the campaign from Israel's army headquarters in Tel Aviv.
"It's natural that Shkedy is nominated to this role, because the air force is Israel's only force that can reach and sustain a military operation against Iran," said Uri Dromi, a former air force colonel and military analyst.
"Everyone is playing with dates and time frames, but the list of options is becoming shorter," he added. "I think we have one year open [to launch military action]. Israel will have to decide."
Iran yesterday tested a long-range, radar-evading missile called Sagheb (Piercing) during war games in the Gulf. Analysts have viewed such moves in the past as a signal Iran could disrupt oil shipping routes if the atomic dispute escalated.
The United States has threatened swift action on sanctions after Aug. 31 if Iran does not heed the UN demand. But analysts say divisions between the six major powers may delay any punitive measures.
Britain, Germany and France have been more cautious in public than Washington about sanctions. Russia and China, both major trading partners with Iran, have been unwilling to impose sanctions and could veto such a move in the Security Council.
Officially, Israel stresses that it does not want to take the lead in tackling Iran and that a massive campaign of air strikes would be best led by the United States, which has forces in Iraq that are much closer to Iranian targets.
Maj.-Gen. Shkedy's appointment to the Iran command role was made by Israel's chief of staff Dan Halutz in the run-up to this summer's Lebanon war, but emerged only last week.
On Friday, in a sharp public rebuke for failing to deliver a fatal blow to Hezbollah, a published poll showed 63% of Israelis want Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign. Many view the UN-brokered ceasefire, supported by Mr. Olmert, as a failure.
Maj.-Gen. Shkedy, 49, makes no bones about the Iranian threat to Israel. "Ahmadinejad is trying with all his might to reach a nuclear capability. There's no argument about his intentions," he said in an interview two months ago, about the time of his appointment.
"This nuclear weaponry can come to constitute an existential threat to Israel and the rest of the world. My job is to maximize our capabilities in every respect. Beyond that, in this case, the less said the better."
Israel readies for Iran
Top general appointed to command 'Iran front'