* World powers, Tehran seek to renew nuclear negotiations
* Netanyahu deputy who doubted in Obama sounds more upbeat
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Dec 18 U.S.-led efforts to curb
Iran's nuclear programme have resumed since President Barack
Obama's re-election and include preparation for possible
military action, a senior Israeli official said on Tuesday.
The remarks by Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon suggested
cautious optimism at prospects for an international resolution
to the decade-old standoff with Tehran, though Israel says it
remains ready to attack its arch-foe alone as a last resort.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set out a
mid-2013 "red line" for tackling Iran's uranium enrichment
project. The West says this programme is aimed at developing the
means to build atomic bombs. Tehran denies this, saying it is
enriching uranium solely for peaceful civilian uses.
Yaalon told Army Radio on Tuesday that Israel knew there
would be no movement on the issue before the U.S. election in
November, but had expected a renewed effort after the vote.
"And indeed it has been renewed," he said.
He cited contacts among the six world powers - the United
States, Russia, France, China, Britain and Germany - and Iran
about holding new nuclear negotiations, ongoing sanctions
against Iran, "and preparations, mainly American for now, for
the possibility that military force will have to be used".
Yaalon did not elaborate. Another Israeli official told
Reuters the minister was alluding mainly to recent U.S. military
mobilisation in the Gulf.
The powers said last week they hoped soon to agree with Iran
soon on when and where to meet. There have been suggestions it
could happen this month, though January now seems more likely.
But, sounding defiant, Iran's top nuclear official was on
Tuesday quoted as saying there would be no halt to uranium
enrichment to 20 percent fissile purity - an advanced threshold
alarming foreign negotiators.
ZONE OF IMMUNITY
A former armed forces chief who belongs to Netanyahu's
rightist Likud party, Yaalon questioned Obama's resolve on Iran
during the Democratic president's first term. By contrast,
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, the lone centrist in
Netanyahu's coalition government, argued in Obama's favour.
Yaalon is a frontrunner to succeed Barak, who has announced
he will retire from politics after Israel's Jan. 22 election.
On Monday, Barak reiterated Israel's determination to deny
Iran the capability to make a bomb. Israel, widely assumed to
have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, sees a nuclear-armed
Iran as a mortal threat.
The prospect of unilateral Israeli air strikes, and ensuing
retaliation by Iran, a big oil exporter, and its Islamist
guerrilla allies in Lebanon and Gaza, worries world powers, in
part because it could destabilise a fragile global economy.
Speaking to Jewish leaders in New York, Barak acknowledged
the limitations of Israeli forces against Iran's distant,
dispersed and well-defended nuclear facilities.
"The Iranians are deliberately trying to create a level of
redundancy and protection for their programme, what we call the
'zone of immunity'. Once they enter the zone of immunity, fate
will be out of our hands," Barak said.
"The state of Israel was founded precisely so that our fate
would remain in our own hands."
Barak's term "redundancy" refers to Israel's belief that
Iran seeks to stockpile raw uranium and enrichment centrifuges
on a scale that would allow it to restore independent nuclear
capacity should its known facilities be attacked.
Iran's nuclear infrastructure has been dogged by sabotage,
including cyberwarfare. Iran's Ministry of Communications and
Technology Information said on Sunday it had identified a "new,
targeted data-wiping malware". The ministry's statement did not
say what computer systems might have been affected.
While Israel has not publicly claimed responsibility for
such incidents, Yaalon said there could be more in store, in
parallel to global economic pressure.
"Sometimes malfunctions happen there - worms, viruses,
explosions. Therefore this schedule is not necessarily
chronological. It is more technological," he told Army Radio.
"We are, without a doubt, closely tracking developments in
the programme there, lest they attempt to pass the red line."