Image: Gates and Barak
Jim Watson  /  AP
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, meets with his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak at a Jerusalem hotel on Monday. Gates was part of a U.S. diplomatic push on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
updated 7/27/2009 10:49:10 AM ET 2009-07-27T14:49:10

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the United States will seek much tougher United Nations sanctions on Iran if that nation spurns the offer of talks on its disputed nuclear program.

Gates says President Barack Obama hopes Iran will come to the table. The United States and several nations want Iran to come clean about what the West suspects is a bomb-making program, and have offered economic and political incentives to get talks started.

Obama has set a rough deadline of this fall for an answer. Gates says the next step would be harsher and might include a number of punitive measures simultaneously. That would be a departure from the current international policy of gradual sanctions with punishments getting tougher each time Iran falls short.

Gates' comments came as Israel's defense minister told him that his country is taking "no option" off the table regarding Iran's nuclear program, indicating that a military strike remains a possibility even as the United States tries to persuade Israel to give diplomacy more time.

"This is our position. We mean it," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, standing alongside Gates. At the same time, Barak said that the current priority should be diplomacy.

Buying time
Gates' visit to Israel was partially aimed at dissuading Israel from taking any military action and buying time for U.S. diplomacy to bear fruit. But Barak's no-options-off-the-table comment, uttered three times, seemed to indicate Gates made no visible headway in getting Israel to soften its line.

Still, the comments did not signal a major rift with the United States, which has also said there is a time limit for its diplomatic outreach. Israel has shown little enthusiasm for a global diplomatic effort that so far has failed to persuade the Iranians to curb their nuclear program.

The United States and Israel believe Iran is attempting to develop atomic weapons. Israel sees a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, particularly in light of bellicose comments from Iran's hardline president and Tehran's support for violent anti-Israel militant groups. Iran says its nuclear program is aimed at producing electricity.

‘Appropriate time’
Acknowledging Israel's concerns, Gates said the U.S. administration's attempt to engage Iran was "not an open-ended offer" and that the United States was aware the Iranians might try to "run out the clock."

"We will deal with the situation at the appropriate time," Gates said, saying he hoped Iran would respond by the U.N. General Assembly this fall. He said sanctions were a possibility if diplomacy fails, while also mentioning plans for a loosely defined "defense umbrella" meant to protect U.S. allies in the region.

"We will continue to ensure that Israel has the most advanced weapons for its national defense," he said.

Skepticism from Israel
Israeli leaders have repeatedly expressed skepticism that diplomacy could work with what they see as a hostile, anti-Western theocracy in Iran.

Barak said he hoped diplomacy would succeed, but urged the United States to set a short deadline and prepare hard-biting financial sanctions against Iran.

"Israel remains in its basic position that no options should be removed from the table, despite at this stage the priority should be given to diplomacy," he said.

Possible military preparations
Israeli officials have said little about what military action they might have in mind. But it has conducted a number of military exercises widely seen as possible preparations, including long-range air force maneuvers and recent movement of Israeli warships and submarines through the Suez Canal, the quickest route to the Persian Gulf from Israel.

Last week the United States and Israel conducted a joint missile-defense test off the coast of California designed to protect against a possible Iranian strike on Israel. The test failed, though Israeli officials characterized it as a minor setback.

In 1981, Israeli warplanes destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in a surprise raid. Iran is believed to have concealed its nuclear facilities deep underground and spread them out over vast distances, raising questions about what sort of blow an Israeli attack could deliver. But Israeli analysts say a military strike could likely set back the Iranians by several years.

More on Israel   |  Robert Gates

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