This is the critical year to stop Iran with diplomacy, and the United States can play a key role in escalating financial pressure, Defense Minister Amir Peretz told The Jerusalem Post Thursday in an exclusive interview ahead of his first trip to the US. Peretz will leave Saturday night for New York, where he will meet with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon for talks on UNIFIL's role in southern Lebanon and efforts to get the multinational force to stop the smuggling of weapons from Syria to Hizbullah. He will then head to Washington for a function with Congress and a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the first meeting between the two defense chiefs. Peretz will also attend the AIPAC Policy Conference and will speak to the lobby group's exclusive list of major donors. "2007 is the critical year to stop Iran diplomatically," he told the Post. "We need to demand that the world step up the financial closure on Iran, since I think that pressure on the flow of money to Iran is important pressure that can stop Iran's race to obtain nuclear weapons." Peretz said the highlight of his trip would be the meeting with Gates. He said Israel and the US were "connected" on many key strategic issues, and expressed hope that his visit would dramatically upgrade relations between the two countries. Earlier this year, the Defense Ministry established The Department of Supervision Over Defense Exports as an additional level of supervision on Israeli defense exports. The department hopes to repair relations with the US that were damaged in 2004 after Israel Aircraft Industries repaired Chinese drones. Peretz said his meeting with Gates, the first meeting between an Israeli defense minister and an American secretary of defense in more than a year, symbolized an "upgrade in Israeli-US relations," and indicated the crisis with the US was resolved. During his talk with Gates, Peretz will discuss the development of technology and Israel's request to receive a budget supplement for defense-related needs as a result of last summer's war in Lebanon.