British fears about imminent strike on Iranian nuclear facilities were heightened by Israeli leader's failure to state country's intentions. Sir John Sawers delivered message that Britain is opposed to action now. Mission, two weeks ago, failed to cool Israeli rhetoric as Israeli PM condemns West for failing to act decisively
The head of MI6 has made an extraordinary secret visit to Israel to urge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to give the go-ahead to plans to bomb Iran.
In an indication that the Government believes a strike on Tehran’s nuclear programme could be imminent, Sir John Sawers is understood to have made a personal mission to deliver a clear message that Britain is opposed to action now.
It is unusual for the head of MI6, who is known in Whitehall as ‘C’, to make a foreign visit as an emissary of the Government, and still more so for details to leak.
David Cameron is understood to have become increasingly concerned at the rhetoric from the authorities in Israel, who have been threatening unilateral military action to halt Iran’s nuclear drive.
Mr Netanyahu and his defence minister Ehud Barak have been pushing London and Washington to take a tougher line against Iran amid growing concern about suspected nuclear sites.
The issue has been discussed by the Government’s National Security Council, with some observers suggesting Israel may seek to strike before the US presidential elections in November, while the leadership in Washington is in a state of limbo.
British fears about an imminent strike on Iranian nuclear facilities are said to have been heightened by Mr Netanyahu’s failure to provide clear answers to questions about Israel’s intentions.
Sir John is thought to have met Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak, as well as a number of Israeli security and diplomatic officials.
He stressed that Britain believes there is still time for diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran to succeed in deterring its hard line regime from developing a nuclear weapon.
Britain, the US and Israel have long suspected that Tehran is trying to develop a nuclear bomb, in flagrant contravention of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Tehran has always denied any military motivation for the programme, claiming it is for civilian purposes. Foreign Office officials say there are signs that the latest sanctions, imposed in July to bar Iranian oil exports to the EU, are having a ‘serious impact’ on the Islamic republic.
Sir John is thought to have suggested to Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak that sanctions could be tightened yet further.
However, his mission, thought to have taken place around two weeks ago, has failed to cool Israeli rhetoric.
In comments which appeared to bring the possibility of an attack closer, Mr Netanyahu last night took the West to task for failing to act more decisively.
He said: ‘The world tells Israel, ‘‘Wait, there’s still time’’. And I say, ‘‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’’ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.’
On Monday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington would not set a deadline in further talks with Iran, saying there was still time for diplomacy to work.
Mr Netanyahu’s remarks came as diplomats said six world powers – including the US – were poised to voice ‘serious concern’ about Iran’s uranium enrichment programme and to urge Tehran to open up access to suspected nuclear sites.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday that Washington would have little more than a year to act to stop Tehran if it decided to produce a nuclear weapon.
Mr Netanyahu has had a strained relationship with President Barack Obama over Iran and other issues, such as Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
The website of Israel’s Haaretz daily newspaper said Mr Netanyahu’s remarks constituted ‘an unprecedented verbal attack on the US government’.
Iran has threatened to retaliate against Israel and US interests in the Gulf if it is attacked, and President Obama’s re-election bid could be derailed by a new war.
Mr Netanyahu added: ‘If Iran knows that there is no deadline, what will it do? Exactly what it’s doing. It’s continuing, without any interference, towards obtaining a nuclear weapons capability and from there, nuclear bombs.’
Downing Street, the Foreign Office, the British embassy in Israel and Mr Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem refused to comment on Sir John’s mission.
A security source said: ‘We would never discuss his travel plans or the reasons for it.’
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