Iran has said it is seeking an end to Western sanctions over its nuclear programme during talks with world powers and criticised France for helping Israel, the only country in the Middle East widely believed to have atomic weapons.
An adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday said the talks in Baghdad on May 23 should lead to the lifting of sanctions, according to Iranian media.
The comments reflect increasing emphasis in the Islamic Republic that an end to sanctions is vital to the success of the talks. It was also the first time an influential political figure explicitly said he expects progress on the issue.
"At the least, our expectation is the lifting of sanctions," Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel said in answer to a question.
Iran's ambassador to Russia in April indicated that a similar move was afoot when he said Iran was considering Moscow's "step-by-step" plan.
That proposal would ultimately curtail the Iran's expansion of its nuclear programme in exchange for averting the European Union oil embargo that is scheduled to kick in in July.
The United States and its allies say Iran's nuclear programme is a cover for developing atomic weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadeh, Iran's deputy foreign minister, sought to turn the tables on the Western powers on Wednesday in Vienna.
He said nuclear weapons had no place in Iran's defence doctrine, and accused "certain" states of double standards.
He took aim at France, a key player in tightening sanctions on Iran, and said it had "spared no effort" in helping Israel, which is widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East. He did not elaborate.
Akhondzadeh also said the existence of nearly 23,000 nuclear warheads in the world and their continued modernisation was the "most serious threat to the survival of mankind".
He added that Iran would never give up its right to the peaceful use of atomic energy.
The United States and Israel regard Iran's nuclear ambitions as the main threat in the volatile region, prompting persistent speculation they might attack its atomic sites if diplomacy fails to resolve the dispute.
The prospect of an imminent election in Israel will not affect its strategy for tackling Iran's nuclear programme, including plans for a possible pre-emptive war, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday.
Rifts in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's conservative coalition over military conscription and budget cuts have prompted parties to mobilise to bring forward the ballot to as early as September, a year ahead of schedule.
That has raised questions about whether an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites - long threatened, although viewed by some Netanyahu critics as a bluff - might now be shelved due to government reluctance to send potential voters to bomb shelters.
"Elections will not affect deliberations of the professional echelon in everything regarding the Iranian issue," Barak said on his Facebook page, adding that Israel still saw military force as among "options on the table".
But while Netanyahu and Barak have maintained a continuously hawkish stance in public toward Iran, but there are signs that the Israeli security establishment may not be keen on war.
In a rare public rebuke on Friday, Netanyahu's former internal security chief accused the prime minister and Barak of
having a "messianic" policy, and of overstating their belligerence.
"A barking dog doesn't bite," Yuval Diskin said.
Israel's military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz also told the Haaretz newspaper last month that he does not believe Iran will decide to produce nuclear weapons.
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|William A. Cook|
|Timothy V. Gatto|