updated 10/19/2006 9:22:27 PM ET 2006-10-20T01:22:27

Israel’s prime minister delivered his strongest comments yet on Iran’s nuclear program, warning Thursday that Tehran would have “a price to pay” if it does not back down from its atomic ambitions and hinting that Israel might be forced to take action.

Ehud Olmert did not specifically threaten to cripple Iran’s nuclear program in a military strike, as it did 25 years ago in Iraq when it bombed an unfinished nuclear reactor there. But he repeated what he said a day earlier after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow — the Iranians “have to be afraid” of the consequences of their intransigence.

“They have to understand that if they object to every compromise, there will be a price to pay,” Olmert said on a flight back to Israel after a three-day trip to Moscow.

Israel rejects Tehran’s claim that its nuclear program is peaceful, designed solely to produce energy. In the past, Israel has said it would not lead a campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, but would act in concert with world powers that are similarly worried.

‘A red line must be drawn’
But with Iran rejecting various compromise proposals and insisting on enriching uranium — a process key to developing nuclear weapons — Olmert been raising the stakes. He said Israel cannot reconcile itself to a nuclear Iran.

“There comes a time when you have to do damage control,” he said. “A red line must be drawn that cannot be crossed,” Olmert added, without elaborating. “Time isn’t standing still,” he said “and perhaps there will be a need to do something in the future.”

Some Israeli officials have made specific threats to hit Iran. But military experts have questioned Israel’s ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, which unlike Iraq’s in 1981 are scattered among installations, some hidden underground. But they have said Israel could set the program back years by striking several of the sites.

Mutual distrust
Israel considers Iran to be the greatest threat to its survival. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for the Jewish state’s destruction, and Iran already has missiles capable of carrying payloads to Israel.

Ahmadinejad shrugged off the threat of U.N. sanctions Thursday, saying his nation would not give up any of its nuclear program.

“The Iranian nation will not cede one iota of its rights,” Ahmadinejad told thousands of cheering supporters in the town of Islamshahr, about 25 miles south of the capital Tehran.

“Our nation achieved proficiency in nuclear energy at a time when you imposed economic, scientific and technological sanctions against us,” he said, addressing the U.S. and its allies and referring to sanctions imposed on Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution and hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

The crowd interrupted his speech with the chant: “Nuclear energy is our right!”

Sanctions measure gains steam
France said Wednesday that a resolution calling for sanctions against Iran would likely be circulated at the U.N. Security Council by the end of the week. Support for sanctions has grown among council members after weeks of talks between the EU and Iran failed to persuade Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment and start broader negotiations.

At a meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday, European Union foreign ministers endorsed a decision by the U.N.’s five permanent Security Council members — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — and Germany to pursue limited sanctions on Tehran while keeping the door open to future talks.

Iran has stalled on a package of economic incentives and political rewards that the six countries offered in June, on the condition that Tehran agree to consider a long-term moratorium on uranium enrichment.

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