Gates warns of tougher Iran sanctions

US defense chief says if offer of talks spurned steps may include simultaneous punitive measures.

Netanyahu gates 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Netanyahu gates 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
There is a greater awareness in the US today about the threat of a nuclear Iran and a greater willingness to ensure that Teheran does not get the bomb than there was before the Iranian elections and their bloody aftermath, an Israeli official said Monday, after emerging from talks with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The official, who characterized Gates's talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as "very good," said the "commonalities far outweighed" the differences during the nearly 90-minute meeting. The official dismissed speculation that the purpose of Gates's brief visit here - he was in the country for only half a day - was to "rein Israel" in and ensure that it did not take any unilateral military action against the Islamic republic. Since this was the first meeting between the two since the elections in Iran, "there was a lot to talk about," the official said. The entire international environment toward Iran has changed, but it was still too early to determine whether that translated into a change of policy, the official said. "What we are seeing is a willingness to talk about a lot tougher sanctions now than in the past," the official said. For instance, after Gates left Israel he went to Jordan and said that the US would seek much tougher UN sanctions if Teheran rejected Washington's offer of engagement. Speaking in Amman, Gates said US President Barack Obama hoped Iran would come to the table. "What is clear is if the engagement process is not successful, the United States is prepared to press for significant additional sanctions that would be non-incremental," Gates said, adding that the US would try to enlist international support for a tougher position. Following the Netanyahu-Gates meeting, the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying that "Gates stated that the US and Israel see eye-to-eye regarding the Iranian nuclear threat and explained that the US engagement with Teheran will not be open-ended." The prime minister, according to the statement, "reiterated the seriousness to which Israel views Iran's nuclear ambitions and the need to utilize all available means to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability." At a press conference with Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the morning, Gates said the US was aware Iran might try to "run out the clock," and that Obama wanted an answer from the Iranians before the UN General Assembly session, scheduled for the end of September. "I think that the president is certainly anticipating or hoping for some kind of response this fall, perhaps by the time of the UN General Assembly," he said. The US was contributing financially and technically to fortifying Israel's missile defense program, Gates added, reiterating a pledge that Israel would maintain its technological advantage over its enemies. "We will continue to ensure that Israel has the most advanced weapons for its national defense," he said. Barak, meanwhile, responded to a question on whether the US was trying to hold Israel back from a military strike by saying, "We are in no position to tell the administration whether to run an engagement with Iran or not, but if there is an engagement, we believe it should be short in time. We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table. This is our policy. We recommend others to take the same positions." He said Israel felt that "sanctions that are much more meaningful than those currently imposed should be prepared in advance." Barak also said, in reference to an idea that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton floated earlier in the month about a nuclear umbrella in the event that Iran does get nuclear weapons, that Israel always preferred to defend itself. "We are extremely grateful to both the current and previous US administrations, and for the technological and financial assistance," he said. "We are not blind to the fact that our actions also influence our neighbors and others, and take this into account, but at the end of the day, we are committed to the national security interests of Israel."