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In U.S., Barak Signals Israeli Autonomy Against Iran

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (left) with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Pentagon on February 25

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (left) with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Pentagon on February 25

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Israel's perspective on Iran's nuclear program differs from that of the United States and the two may part ways on what action to take, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said.

Washington's clout over its Middle East ally is under scrutiny after Israel's veiled threats to attack Iran preemptively if international diplomacy fails to rein in Tehran's uranium enrichment, a process with bomb-making potential.

The United States this week said it did not want to hurt the Iranian people with "crippling" sanctions against Iran's energy sector, measures Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has described as the only viable diplomatic solution.

"There is of course a certain difference in perspective and a difference in judgment and a difference in the internal clock, a difference in capabilities," Barak told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank, when asked about Israeli-U.S. discussions about Iran.

"I don't think that there is a need to coordinate in this regard. There should be understanding on the exchange of views, but we do not need to coordinate everything," said Barak, who was in Washington for strategic talks.

Barak, a centrist in Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition government, reiterated Israel's argument that an Iranian bomb would destabilize the region by sparking an arms race and emboldening Islamist guerrillas sponsored by Tehran.

"Probably from this corner of the world it [Iran's nuclear program] doesn't change the script dramatically," he said, speaking in English. "From a closer distance, in Israel, it looks like a tipping point for the whole regional order, with quite assured consequences for the wider world."

While he played down the specter of Iran -- which denies having hostile designs -- trying to wipe out Israel in a nuclear strike, Barak urged the United States and other powers to keep "all options on the table" including preemptive force.

Israel bombed Iraq's atomic reactor in 1981 and launched a similar strike against Syria in 2007. But many analysts believe it lacks the means to deliver lasting damage to Iranian nuclear facilities which are numerous, distant and well-defended.

Yet Barak hinted at Israel's willingness to go it alone, saying: "We felt very proud that we never asked the Americans to come and fight for us. We paraphrase Churchill, we said, 'Give us the tools and we will do the job.'"

He praised the Obama administration for making "the utmost effort" to resolve the standoff with Iran diplomatically.

Voicing reluctance to see a new Middle East war, the United States has boosted support for Israel's strategic defenses. That has led some analysts to speculate that Israel, which is assumed to have the region's only atomic arsenal, could eventually be forced to enter a U.S.-led "containment" policy on Iran.