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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Defense Minister Ehud Barak played down Tuesday speculation that Israel intends to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, saying no decision had been made on embarking on a military operation.
"War is not a picnic. We want a picnic. We don't want a war," Barak told Israel Radio before the release this week of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran's nuclear activity.
"(Israel) has not yet decided to embark on any operation," he said, dismissing as "delusional" Israeli media speculation that he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had chosen that course.
But he said Israel had to prepare for "uncomfortable situations" and ultimately bore responsibility for its own security.
All options to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions should remain open, Barak said, repeating the official line taken by Israel, which has termed a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to its existence.
Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, something it has never confirmed or denied under a policy of strategic ambiguity to keep Arab and Iranian adversaries at bay.
Ahmad Vahidi, Iran's defense minister, cautioned against any military strike on its atomic facilities. "We are fully prepared for a firm response to such foolish measures by our enemies," Vahidi was quoted as saying by Iran's student news agency.
Western diplomats said the report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog is expected to show recent activity in Iran that could be put to developing nuclear bombs, including intelligence about computer modeling of such weapons.
Iran says its uranium enrichment program is aimed at generating electricity only.
"I estimate that it will be quite a harsh report ... it does not surprise Israel, we have been dealing with these issues for years," Barak said.
He voiced doubt, however, that the U.N. Security Council, where Tehran's traditional sympathizers China and Russia have veto power, would respond to the IAEA's findings by imposing tough new sanctions following four previous rounds of measures.
"We are probably at the last opportunity for coordinated, international, lethal sanctions that will force Iran to stop," Barak said, calling for steps to halt imports of Iranian oil and exports of refined petroleum to the Islamist Republic.
Such steps, he said, "will need the cooperation of the United States, Europe, India, China and Russia -- and I don't think that it will be possible to form such a coalition."
Moscow has called for a step-by-step process under which the existing sanctions would be eased in return for actions by Iran to dispel concerns over its nuclear program.
At a news conference in Berlin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said "militarist statements to the effect that Israel or other countries use force against Iran or any other country in the Middle East" represented "very dangerous rhetoric."
Speculation in Israel about an imminent attack on Iran was fueled last week by the Jewish state's test-launching of a long-range missile and comments by Netanyahu that Tehran's nuclear program posed a "direct and heavy threat."
Pressed in the radio interview about a military option, Barak said he was aware of fears among many Israelis that a strike against Iran could draw catastrophic retaliatory missile attacks by Tehran and its Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah allies.
"There is no way to prevent some damage. It will not be pleasant," Barak said. "There is no scenario for 50,000 dead, or 5,000 killed -- and if everyone stays in their homes, maybe not even 500 dead."
Israel held a wide-scale civil defense exercise last week, a drill that Israeli officials said was routine and scheduled months ago.
Interviews by Reuters with government and military officials, as well as independent experts, suggest that Israel prefers caution over a unilateral strike against the Iranians.
Iran has repeatedly said it would respond to any attack by striking U.S. interests in the Middle East and could close the Gulf to oil traffic, causing massive disruption to global crude supplies.
Many countries like Russia and U.S. allies Germany and France have opposed any strike against the Islamic Republic, saying it could cause "irreparable damages," suggesting that the dispute should be resolved through diplomatic means.
The United States says it remains focused on using diplomatic and economic levers to pressure Iran.
Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna and Tehran and Berlin bureaux; Editing by Mark Heinrich