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Israel to Iran: Shut down nuclear program or risk attack

Tuesday - 8/14/2012, 3:05pm  ET

AP: f0c3e4ce-5b06-48c5-8222-516020303276
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012. With attack rhetoric heating up, Israel's prime minister says the threat from Iran dwarfs all others. Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday, "Iran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons." (AP Photo/Abir Sultan, Pool)

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren talks Iran

WTOP's National Security Correspondent J.J. Green reports

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J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Israel is sending a strong warning to Iran's Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei about the country's nuclear weapons program.

"He can have a nuclear program, lose everything or shut it down and remain in power," Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. tells WTOP.

In an exclusive interview, Oren says an attack plan is on the table. "But we're not there yet."

When pressed about what would trigger the long-prophesied attack, Oren suggests the speed at which Iran is burying its nuclear program, where it would be out of reach of Israeli weapons, is a key determinant.

"They've been moving thousands of centrifuges underground where we may not be able to reach them and we may not even know what's going on," Oren says.

Intelligence has shown the concern for the Israeli military is that Iran continues to construct subterranean nuclear facilities against which Israeli bombs would be ineffective. But he says U.S. weapons could destroy them.

"The United States has vastly greater capabilities. It's no secret America has capabilities that Israel does not have," he says.

That leaves the U.S. in an awkward position.

When asked about an attack, White House spokesman Jay Carney tells reporters, "I would point you to remarks that Prime Minister Netanyahu made not that long ago where he said that they had not yet made a decision about taking action, kinetic action."

"We believe, and certainly share this with our partners, that there remains time and space to pursue a diplomatic course that is backed up by the very firm approach we've taken on sanctions," he adds.

There seems to be a common belief in some U.S. political circles that Israel will not act without U.S. permission. Amos Harel, one of Israel's leading media experts on military and defense issues says what Israel is seeking is more agreement than consent.

"I'm not sure that Israel is actually looking for a so-called green light from the Americans. A yellow light would probably be enough," Harel says.

Oren deflected the suggestion the U.S. could green-light an attack.

"We are in close consultation and cooperation with the United States and (they) understand that we are a sovereign state. And President Obama has said he recognizes that sovereign states not only have the right and the duty to defend their citizens," Oren says.

The most important factor for both the U.S. and Israel is Iran's weapons production. Iran has "enough enriched uranium for nearly five nuclear devices," according to Oren.

"Here is a nuclear program, which according to the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations is actually accelerating despite some very powerful sanctions levied on Iran," says Oren.

Both the U.S. and Israeli governments have said stopping Iran from building a device is their key objective.

When asked where the Pentagon stands, spokesman George Little says, "Iran will not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon."

Little skillfully avoided going into details about how the U.S. military would ensure that didn't happen, saying only "the U.S. is prepared for a variety of contingencies."

The persistent message from the Israeli government is each day that Iran continues to push further on with its nuclear program is a day they come closer to an attack from Israel.

But while no decision on a zero-hour has been publicly revealed, Harel says, "We're close to the point of decision. Sometime during this year, either Israel or the United States will have to make up their minds. I don't think the decision has been taken."

Oren says no one has a greater interest than Israel in a peaceful resolution to the situation, but if debilitating sanctions and diplomacy don't work, a massive attack to scuttle Iran's nuclear program may be necessary.

The time frame, according to Oren is, "not days, not weeks, but not years either."

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)