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Gates Reassures Israel On U.S.-Iran Strategy


The Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran

The Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has moved to reassure Israel on that Washington's bid to talk Iran into giving up sensitive nuclear work was worth pursuing, despite Tehran's reticence.

President Barack Obama has put the quest for engagement with Iran at the core of U.S. foreign policy. Israel, which says a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its survival, has hinted at preemptive strikes should it deem diplomacy a dead end.

During a visit to Israel on July 27, Gates affirmed Obama's hope for an Iranian response to the U.S. overtures in time for the UN General Assembly in late September.

"I think, based on the information that's available to us, that the timetable that the president has laid out still seems to be viable and does not significantly increase the risks to anybody," Gates told reporters at a press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak.

Iran says that its uranium enrichment -- a process with bomb-making potential -- is for energy. It has rejected U.S.-led demands to curb the program. This, along with the fiercely anti-Israel rhetoric from Tehran, has stirred up war fears.

There is a knock-on cost for Obama's efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, as Israel has demanded that the perceived Iranian threat be neutralized first.

Barak endorsed the U.S. strategy on Iran but said any negotiations should be kept to a tight schedule and girded by readiness to impose tougher UN Security Council sanctions.

"If there is an engagement, we believe it should be short in time, well-defined in objectives, followed by sanctions, preferably [United Nations Charter] Chapter 7-type of sanctions," Barak said, speaking in English.

He also kept open the possibility that Israel, which is widely assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, could attack the Iranians preemptively -- a region-rattling scenario that finds little public favor in Washington.

"We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table....We recommend to others to take the same position but we cannot dictate it to anyone," Barak said.

Obligations

"We are not blind to the fact that our operations or activity also affect neighbors and others, and we take this into account. But ultimately our obligation is to Israel's national security interest."

Gates' visit coincides with a tour by Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, who is seeking a deal with Israel for a settlement freeze on land Palestinians want for a state.

Obama's demand, in accordance with a 2003 U.S.-backed peace "road map", to cease Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem has met stiff resistance from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Mitchell held talks in Israel on July 26 and was due to continue his discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on July 27 after a brief visit to Egypt.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas has said he would not resume peace talks with Israel, suspended for the past six months, until it halted all settlement activity in accordance with the U.S.-backed "road map".

Barak told his parliamentary faction after meeting Gates that Israel and the United States "are looking for ways to put the differences behind us and to move forward with the wide-scale approach, which is so important in an effort to create an infrastructure for regional peace and take it forward."

Obama has given Iran until late September to accept an unconditional offer of talks aimed at curbing its nuclear ambitions, and until the end of the year to show progress on the issue. He has also warned Tehran that the United States would not abide endless talks that yield no result on the issue.

A senior U.S. defense official who briefed reporters ahead of Gates' trip to Israel said the United States was not even close to considering a military strike option against Iran.

On July 22, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States might cope with a nuclear Iran by buttressing its allies and spreading an unspecified "defense umbrella" over the region.
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