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Sharon: Iran's nuclear weapon program nears 'point of no return'

Israeli prime minister noncommittal on settlement question


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Wednesday that Iran is nearing a "point of no return" in developing a nuclear weapon that could be used against his country.

In a CNN interview, Sharon said Iran was years away from possessing a nuclear weapon -- but could be just months away from overcoming "technical problems" in building one.

"The point of no return depends upon the ability of the Iranians to solve some technical issues, and once they solve it, I think that will be the point of no return," he said.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency has no hard evidence Iran is building a bomb.

Sharon was asked if Israel had such evidence.

"We have evidence that Iran makes every effort to possess nuclear weapons," Sharon said, without elaborating.

In 1981, Israel launched a unilateral strike on a suspected nuclear weapons site in Iraq.

Sharon was asked under what conditions Israel would consider a similar strike against Iran.

Sharon said the 1981 strike saved many lives, but that the current situation is different.

Actions to pressure Iran should involve a coalition of democracies, led by the United States, he said.

As for a unilateral strike, he said, "We don't think that is what we have to do."

West Bank settlement issue

Sharon also discussed U.S. concerns over a recent Israeli announcement that it wants to expand the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, which is near historically Arab east Jerusalem.

A freeze in Jewish settlement construction in the Palestinian territories is part of the "road map" envisioned by the so-called Mideast Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.

The plan's ultimate aim is the creation of a Palestinian state co-existing peacefully beside Israel.

Israel has said the addition of 3,500 housing units is part of the natural growth of Ma'aleh Adumim and that linking the area to Jerusalem is important.

Palestinians insist the plan would cut off Arab neighborhoods from the rest of what could become the Palestinian state.

Sharon admitted the issue poses "one of the major blocks" to a peace agreement and said it would likely be discussed in the future.

But he was noncommittal about Israel's plans, which he said have been in the works for 10 years.

Sharon and President Bush discussed the issue Monday at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Bush said Israel must honor its commitment to halt the expansion, but he repeated his belief that "new realities on the ground" mean that major Jewish population centers in the West Bank will remain with Israel in a final settlement that results in a Palestinian state. (Full story)

Sharon is planning to pull Jewish settlers out of 21 settlements in Gaza and four small settlements in the West Bank.

He said Israel plans to raze synagogues and cemeteries, but leave vacant housing behind after the Gaza pullout.

The prime minister acknowledged that a few Israeli soldiers are upset about the pullout and said the atmosphere in Israel is "tense" like the "eve of the civil war."

But he expects the Gaza withdrawal to be successful.


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