JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister on Monday said that Iran is steadily edging closer to nuclear weapons capability but has not yet reached the "red line" he drew in a speech to the United Nations last fall.
Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his assessment as Israel took delivery of the fifth of six advanced submarines it has ordered from Germany. The "Dolphin" class vessels are believed to be capable of carrying missiles with nuclear warheads and could play an important role in any future conflict between Israel and Iran.
In Iran, an influential former president appeared to be trying to lower tensions with Israel, saying that his country is not at war with the Jewish state, Iranian media reported. It was the latest departure by a high-profile politician from the strident anti-Israel line traditionally taken by senior Iranian leaders.
The remarks by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani follow calls from figures across his nation's political spectrum to repair the damage to Iran's international reputation, blaming outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called Israel a doomed state and questioned the extent of the Holocaust.
Several of the critics, including Rafsanjani, are considered possible contenders in June elections to succeed Ahmadinejad.
"We are not at war with Israel," said the ex-president, quoted by several Iranian newspapers including the pro-reform Shargh daily. He said Iran would not initiate war against Israel, but "if Arab nations wage a war, then we would help."
Israel accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, a suspicion shared by much of the world. The international community has imposed a series of economic sanctions on Iran and opened a dialogue with the Tehran regime, but so far has failed to curb its nuclear program. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes only.
Israel says a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten Israel's existence, citing Iranian calls for Israel's destruction and its development of sophisticated missiles capable of striking Israel. Netanyahu has repeatedly hinted that Israel would be prepared to attack Iran, unilaterally if necessary, if the international pressure fails to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
Speaking to his Likud Party on Monday, Netanyahu warned that the Iranian program continues to advance.
"It has not yet crossed the red line that I presented at the U.N., but is systematically getting closer to it," he said. "We cannot let (Iran) cross it."
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last September, Netanyahu said the international community would have until mid-2013 to stop Iran from producing a bomb. He said in a television interview this month that Iran has already produced 170 kilograms of the 250 kilograms of enriched uranium needed to be capable of building a bomb. He said his assessment was based on figures from the U.N. nuclear agency.
A key Netanyahu rival, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, accused some Israelis of exaggerating the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program and strongly hinted that covert Israeli operations have hindered the Iranians.
Speaking to a New York conference, Olmert noted that a decade ago, intelligence experts predicted that Iran would have nuclear weapons by 2009. "Now we are in the middle of 2013, and they still don't have it," he said. He also said his government "did no less" than any other Israeli government in dealing with the threat.
"They don't have it not only because of their failures. Perhaps someone helped them to fail," Olmert said at Sunday's Jerusalem Post Conference, hinting he was referring to his government.
Israel was widely believed to be involved in mysterious computer viruses that have crippled Iran's nuclear program. Iran has also accused Israel of killing nuclear scientists. Israel does not comment on such issues as a matter of policy.
The U.S. says it shares Israel's commitment to preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. But during a trip to the region earlier this month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged there are some differences with Israel over when military action might be needed.
The U.S. has said it respects Israel's right to defend itself but urged the Israelis to give more time for diplomacy to work. The U.S. has voiced concerns that a unilateral Israeli strike could draw the U.S. into a region-wide war.
Israel's time frame is shorter because it does not possess the same powerful weaponry as the U.S. During his visit, Hagel stressed the U.S. commitment to preserving Israel's qualitative military edge in the Middle East, listing advanced weapons it would provide. Among them were refueling planes that could be used in long-distance operations such as striking Iran.
On Monday, Israel's military announced the "inauguration" of its fifth Dolphin-class submarine purchased from Germany. In a statement, it said the submarine is expected to arrive in Israel within the next year after its operational systems are completed and installed.
Analysts say the Dolphin can be fitted with missiles carrying nuclear warheads, so that the vessels could provide a "second strike" capability if Iran were to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon. Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, though it does not confirm or deny having them.
"The submarines are a strong, strategic tool" for Israel, Netanyahu said. "The state of Israel is ready to act anytime, anywhere — on land, sea and air — in order to ensure the security of Israel's citizens," he said.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.