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Israel says Iran must stop all enrichment, denies having access to Azerbaijan air bases

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu early Wednesday that Iran should remain under biting sanctions until it halts all uranium enrichment, appearing to exceed U.N. demands on Tehran, as Israel denied it had gained access to air bases in Azerbaijan.

His remarks appeared aimed at stepping up pressure on Iran as it engages in revived international nuclear negotiations amid increased speculation in recent months that Israel may soon take military action to halt its nuclear drive.

“They have to stop all enrichment,” Netanyahu told CNN in an interview in Jerusalem, adding that he would not accept Iran enriching uranium to even three percent, which is near the level required for peaceful atomic energy.

“After you stop all enrichment... you will get these (fuel) rods from another country that can allow you to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” he said.

Netanyahu said Iran must also “dismantle the underground bunker,” apparently referring to the Fordo site near the holy city of Qom, where U.N. inspectors say it has begun enriching uranium to 20-percent purity, according to AFP.

When asked if he worried that his language might commit Israel to launching a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Netanyahu replied: “I’m not worried what we look like. I’m worried about stopping this.”

Iran has already developed the capacity to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent, the level required for atomic energy, and to 20 percent, which is used to create medical isotopes.

It would have to enrich to 90 percent in order to make nuclear weapons.

Israel has long seen Iran as the greatest threat to its survival, both because of Tehran’s nuclear program and because of its leaders’ calls for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map.

Tehran has insisted its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and has claimed the right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.

An Iranian envoy is scheduled to meet with representatives of the P+5 group, which includes the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany, in Baghdad on May 23 for fresh talks aimed at resolving the nuclear impasse.

U.S. and EU diplomats are reportedly planning to demand that Iran close and dismantle the Fordo site, stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and ship existing stockpiles out of the country, demands already rejected by Tehran.

Iran and the P5+1 met in Istanbul on April 14 for the first time in 15 months.

The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran over suspicions that its avowed civilian nuclear program is a cover for a secret atomic weapons drive, a charge vigorously denied by Tehran.

No access

Israel denied on Monday that it had gained access to air bases in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, which borders its foe Iran.

“Such reports are from the sphere of science fiction and do not correspond with the truth,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters in the Azeri capital Baku, Reuters reported.

Israel’s defense minister said last week that military action aimed to ensure that does not happen remains an option even while nuclear negotiations between Tehran and six global powers are under way after more than a year’s hiatus.

There has been media speculation that Israel would seek to use Azerbaijan as a launching ground for potential attacks on Iran, and the U.S. journal Foreign Policy last month cited sources as saying the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to air bases on Iran's northern border.

“People with a very rich imagination publish such stories ... Media publish a lot of speculation,” Lieberman said, adding that he discussed bilateral relations as well as the “issue of Iran” with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, but did not go into details.

“Relations with Azerbaijan could not be better. They are trusting and productive,” he said.

Azerbaijan, a mostly Shiite Muslim country with a secular government, is home to more than 9,000 Jews in a population of 9 million and has friendly ties with Israel as well as with the United States and Russia.

A major energy producer, it exports oil to Israel and imports weapons and military hardware.

Relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, its much larger southern neighbor, have been tense in recent months.

Iran has accused Azerbaijan of assisting Israeli intelligence in killings of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Last month, security forces arrested several Azeris and Iranians on suspicion of spying for Iran, plotting to attack Western targets and smuggling arms from Iran into Azerbaijan.