NICOSIA, Cyprus - Senior Israeli officials sent rare mixed messages Thursday about the effectiveness of Western sanctions aimed at pressuring Iran to suspend its nuclear research program.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the sanctions imposed on Iran, while important, haven't yet been effective, while his defense minister and vice premier said sanctions are strong and have the Iranians panicking.
Israel, along with most of the West, accuse Iran of pursuing atomic weapons -a claim Tehran denies. Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be a threat to its very existence, citing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated calls for Israel's destruction and Iran's support for anti-Israel militant groups.
With Israel claiming that time is running out to stop the Iranians, there are growing international concerns that the Israelis are preparing to attack Iran. The international community fears an Israeli strike could set off a region-wide war and roil global oil markets.
Though eager for an international campaign to halt the Iranians, Israel is wary of appearing to be leading the drive. Netanyahu had previously instructed his ministers to stop the "chitchat" about Iran to allow him to keep a uniform message.
But in a series of appearances Thursday, Israel's top brass expressed divergent opinions.
During a one-day trip to neighboring Cyprus, Netanyahu cited Iran's ceremonious TV broadcast Wednesday, which featured Ahmadinejad touring a Tehran research reactor, as evidence of progress.
"If anybody needed a reminder that sanctions so far haven't stopped Iran's nuclear program, it was the guided tour by Iran's president of the centrifuge halls yesterday," Netanyahu told reporters. "I hope that sanctions work but so far they haven't worked. We are witnessing a regime that breaks all the rules and has absolutely no respect for international norms."
Israel has accused Iran of being behind a string of attempted attacks this week on Israeli diplomats in India, Georgia and Thailand.
During a trip to Japan, Netanyahu's defense minister, Ehud Barak, played down the significance of the ceremony this week in Iran. He told Israel Radio that the Iranians are trying to portray their situation as "better than what it really is."
Barak dismissed Iran's televised presentation as a "show," saying that Iran wants to create the impression that its nuclear capabilities are now irreversible. He said Iran is trying to make it seem "like the point of no return is already behind them, which is not the case."
And one of Netanyahu's deputies, Moshe Yaalon, said the broadcast marked a sign of panic and weakness.
"Inflation and unemployment are high. There is also disquiet that is threatening the regime," Yaalon told Israel Radio. "We are seeing reactions that are in some ways hysterical."
Netanyahu himself has seemed to waver on the issue of sanctions against Iran. He has repeatedly called for tougher economic measures and expressed hope that the strong economic front would provide a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue.
Last month, he told The Australian newspaper that international pressure was working and the Iranian economy was "showing clear signs of stress." He said that for the first time, he thought Iran was wobbling under international economic sanctions.