Israel launches spy satellite


Israel has launched its latest military spy satellite, boosting its intelligence-gathering capabilities in the face of Iran’s nuclear programme, a cabinet minister said this morning. The Ofek 9 was blasted into orbit by an Israeli-made rocket on Tuesday from the Palmachim air base south of Tel Aviv, joining three other Israeli spy satellites in space.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio: “Israel’s boosting of its intelligence capabilities is directed … to a large extent towards the threat posed by Iran, first and foremost the nuclear threat.”

Brigadier-General Nimrod Sheffer, deputy chief of the air force, said preliminary data had been received from Ofek 9 and it would transmit its first picture within days.

Along with the West, Israel believes Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are aimed at producing nuclear weapons, an allegation Tehran denies. Israel supports international efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear programme, but along with Washington, it has not ruled out a military option. Israel is widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power.

Meanwhile, US officials say private companies are increasingly working to avoid risky ties to Iran, a sign that tough new sanctions on Tehran’s nuclear program have begun to bite. Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey said new UN sanctions, coupled with unilateral measures proposed by the United States, the European Union and others, were effectively cutting Iran off from the global economy as companies join governments in shunning the Islamic republic.
“Virtually all major financial institutions have either completely cut off or dramatically reduced their ties with Iran,” Levey told a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We are now starting to see companies across a range of sectors, including insurance, consulting, energy, and manufacturing make similar decisions,” Levey said. “The private sector really is getting the point that if they do business with Iran, they put themselves at enormous risk.”

Levey said the United States would seek strict enforcement of the new measures, which include new UN Security Council sanctions passed this month along with even stronger measures being considered by the US Congress. Undersecretary of State William Burns said the proposed US legislation, which would target foreign banks and gasoline suppliers with ties to Iran, could help to pressure the private sector — although he repeated that the government would like the authority to waive the sanctions if necessary. “We want to work with you to help shape that legislation so that it amplifies the impact of the international coalition that we’ve built,” Burns told the same committee.

US officials are eager to show that the strategy of tightening the economic screws on Iran will work despite doubts over the overall effectiveness of targeted sanctions. Levey said Iran’s leaders were clearly anxious about the new sanctions and could be expected to step up efforts to work around the bans with tools such as front companies, doctored wire transfers and falsified manifests.

The new UN measures blacklist dozens of Iranian military, industrial and shipping companies, tighten an arms embargo and provide for inspections of suspect cargoes to and from Iran. Russia and China, which have strong economic ties with Tehran and have at times resisted sanctions, supported the final measure but managed to dilute Western hopes for tougher moves targeting Iran’s energy sector. Iran denies Western allegations that it is seeking atomic weapons, insisting that it only wants peaceful nuclear energy.

The US Treasury has already imposed its own sanctions on Iran’s state-controlled banks, front companies for its state shipping line, more of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and some 20 petroleum and petrochemical companies. The EU has agreed to block oil and gas investment and curtail Iran’s refining and natural gas capacity. Questioned on the effectiveness of sanctions, Burns and Levey cited examples of Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse and Lloyds TSB Group Plc, which last year agreed to pay $536 million and $350 million, respectively, in connection with charges they sought to evade US sanctions on Iran and other countries.

Burns said the State Department was investigating at least a couple of further cases of potential sanctions busting, and would move aggressively against malefactors. “The proof will be our actions and we’re moving ahead expeditiously,” he said.

Burns said Russia’s decision not to deliver S-300 missiles to Iran was a sign of the effectiveness of the new resolutions, but China remained a concern. “China’s continuing or potential investment in Iran’s energy sector is going to remain a very important concern,” he said. “We’re going to continue to press that hard.” Burns said the new economic steps would “sharpen the choices” for Iran’s leadership, and that the United States was open to talks on Iran’s nuclear program if Tehran would address serious international concerns.
“The door is open to serious negotiation if Iran is prepared to walk through it,” Burns said. “There is growing international pressure on Iran to live up to its obligations and growing international isolation for Iran if it does not.”