US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday said that although military action against Iran remains an option, the threat of force is not the only way to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb. Gates was speaking during an official visit to Australia.
The comments from the US defense secretary came in response to Israeli assertions on Sunday that Iran would put a stop to its nuclear ambitions only if it feared military action would be taken against it. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, visiting the US this week, is turning up pressure on the Obama administration to take a tougher line.
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According to diplomatic officials, Netanyahu told US Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday that "the only way to ensure that Iran is not armed with nuclear weapons is to create a credible threat of military action against it, unless it stops its race to obtain nuclear weapons.”
The two men met on the sidelines of the General Assembly in New Orleans, an annual event sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America.
Gates, in Australia, rejected the notion that Iran will only listen if it thinks it's about to be attacked.
He said the latest international sanctions are hitting Iran harder than
that country's ruling regime had expected, and should be allowed more
Netanyahu's words mark a sharp escalation from his past statements on Iran, which have focused more on the need for diplomatic measures such as harsh economic sanctions, rather than military deterrence.
On Monday, the prime minister is expected to continue to raise the issue of Iran, both when he addresses the GA and when he meets with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York later in the day.
Striking a conciliatory pose, Iran on Sunday proposed that a new round of international talks on its nuclear program to be held in Turkey, but did not set a timetable for such talks.
In his meeting with Biden, Netanyahu insisted that although economic sanctions have made it difficult for Teheran, there is no sign that they have caused the ayatollahs’ regime to halt its nuclear program.
Sanctions have affected the regime but have not persuaded Teheran to drop its pursuit of nuclear weapons, Netanyahu said.
“The only time that Iran stopped its nuclear program was in 2003, and that was when they believed that there was a real chance of an American military strike against them,” Netanyahu told Biden, according to diplomatic sources.
“Paradoxically, only a real military threat against Iran can prevent the need to activate a real military force,” the prime minister said.
According to diplomatic sources, Netanyahu said, “Iran is attempting to mislead the West and there are worrying signs that the international community is captivated by this mirage.”
Earlier in the day, in Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the Islamic Republic may be the worst threat facing Western society.
“The biggest threat is Iran,” said Lieberman, who explained that aside from it’s nuclear threat, Iran was was backing terrorist groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, as well as terrorism in Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.
He spoke at a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is in Israel for a two-day visit.
Westerwelle spoke of the importance of the diplomatic process in combating Iran’s nuclear threat, but said that Teheran needed more than words to demonstrate that it was not developing nuclear weapons.
Both men also spoke of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Westerwelle called on Israel to freeze settlement activity and added that it would be “wise” to do so.
Lieberman said that the settlements were not an obstacle to peace.
The Palestinians “wasted time” when they refused to talk with Israel for the first nine months of the 10-month moratorium, coming to the negotiating table only in the last month of the freeze, he said.
And they sat down with Israel, Lieberman added, only because they were pressured by the United States.
“We are ready for talks without preconditions and without any attempt to create an obstacle. We are ready today [to talk], we were ready a year ago and next week,” he said.
In New Orleans, Netanyahu and Biden discussed the stalled peace process, a topic that will be raised on Thursday when the prime minister meets in New York with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
According to diplomatic sources, Netanyahu said that Israel had the
political will to make peace but that the Palestinians had not exhibited
a similar desire.
Government sources have said that Netanyahu is willing to make
concessions to the Palestinians, but only if they offer Israel something
Palestinians have threatened to seek unilateral statehood from the
United Nations, should no compromise with Israel be found. On Monday,
Netanyahu is expected to urge Ban to support a negotiated process rather
than a unilateral one.
Gil Shefler contributed to this report.