VIENNA — Israel's defense minister urged the world on Sunday to apply "paralyzing" sanctions on Iran's energy sector and leadership, but didn't comment about whether his country is ready to strike Tehran to cripple its alleged efforts to make nuclear arms.
Ehud Barak also described the Arab Spring that has swept regional despots from power in the Mideast and Africa as an "extremely moving" manifestation of mass striving for democracy, and he predicted that Syrian President Bashar Assad would be toppled within weeks.
Barak spoke on the final day of the three-day World Policy Conference in Vienna, which also showed that relations between Turkey and Israel remain strained following last year's Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that killed eight Turkish citizens and a Turkish-American.
The annual conference aims to bring together policymakers from different sectors to debate some of the world's more pressing concerns and attempt to advance solutions.
Regarding Assad's clique, Barak said during a question-and-answer session at the conference, "The falling down of this family is a blessing for the Middle East."
He said he expects Syria's relatively secular society to remain that way in any post-Assad scenario. At the same time, Barak said the Mideast turmoil over the short term could result in more influence for Islamic radicals, which would be "quite disturbing for the region."
The Arab region's democratic upheavals and Iran are among Israel's most pressing security concerns. The Jewish state is particularly keen to preserve an alliance with Egypt that is a cornerstone of Mideast stability, but relations between the two countries have become strained since a popular uprising toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February.
The storming of Israel's Cairo embassy in September and a strong showing by Islamist parties in Egypt's elections have fueled fears in Israel about future ties between the two countries.
Israel and Egypt signed a U.S.-brokered peace treaty in 1979, the first between Israel and an Arab state. The agreement has allowed Israel to divert resources to its volatile fronts with Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Egypt has benefited by receiving billions of dollars in U.S. military aid.
Iran's nuclear progress — and fears that it is secretly working on atomic arms — is perhaps an even greater worry.
Israeli officials have recently toned down increasingly strident warnings that their country may be planning to strike at Iran's nuclear facilities in an attempt to cripple a program that can be used both for civilian and military purposes. But they say force remains an option, if diplomacy fails to end Tehran's nuclear defiance.
On Sunday, Barak avoided mentioning the military option, telling the meeting he thinks there still is "time for urgent, coherent, paralyzing sanctions" on Iran's leadership and its energy sector, effectively throttling exports and imports of oil and related products by Tehran.
Adding to Iran's burden of already existing U.N. and national sanctions, the U.S. and the European Community have been tightening the net of economic punishments targeting Tehran in recent weeks.
The European Union recently imposed sanctions on nearly 150 Iranian companies and dozens of individuals and is examining the feasibility of additional measures that could include restrictions on oil imports and gasoline exports to and from Iran.
Tehran denies seeking nuclear arms. But reflecting regional concerns, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal recently warned that his country could someday consider making its own atomic weapons, if stuck between nuclear arsenals in Iran and Israel.
Israel does not comment on the widely held presumption that it has such weapons, and Barak kept to that practice Sunday.
But he warned that an Iran with nuclear weapons "will start the countdown toward a terrible vision:" other nations in the region — and radicals like Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon — acquiring their own arsenals.
Barak and Turkish President Abdullah Gul were the most prominent guests at the conference and they appeared to steer clear of each other, reflecting tensions between their nations.
Turkish media reported that Gul stayed away from the group photo session before the conference to avoid Barak.
In response, Barak walked out as Gul prepared to make his speech on Friday. Gul then boycotted the dinner given by Austrian president to avoid Barak again and instead he attended prayers at a mosque in Vienna.
Barak acknowledged the two nations remain unable "to iron out" their differences.
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