JERUSALEM -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates moved to reassure Israel on Monday that Washington's bid to talk Iran into giving up sensitive nuclear work was worth pursuing, despite the reticence so far from Tehran.
Obama has made fresh engagement with Iran a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Israel, which sees the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran as a mortal threat, has hinted that it could resort to preemptive strikes if it deems diplomacy a dead end.
During a visit to Israel, Gates affirmed President Barack Obama's hope for an Iranian response to the American overtures in time for the U.N. General Assembly in late September.
"I think, based on the information that's available to us, that the timetable that the president has laid out still seems to be viable and does not significantly increase the risks to anybody," Gates told reporters at a press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak.
Iran says its uranium enrichment, which has bomb-making potential, is for energy needs and has rejected U.S.-led calls to curb the program. That, along with fiercely anti-Israel rhetoric from Tehran, has stirred fear of a regional war.
There is also a cost in terms of Obama's efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, as Israel has demanded that the perceived threat from the Iranians be neutralized first.
Speaking after his meeting with Gates, Barak backed the U.S. diplomatic strategy on Iran but called for a tight schedule with readiness to impose tough U.N. Security Council sanctions.
"If there is an engagement, we believe it should be short in time, well-defined in objectives, followed by sanctions, preferably (United Nations Charter) Chapter 7-type of sanctions," Barak said, speaking in English.
He also kept open the possibility that Israel, which is widely assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, could attack the Iranians pre-emptively -- a region-rattling scenario that finds little public favor in Washington.
ALL OPTIONS OPEN
"We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table. This is our policy. We mean it. We recommend to others to take the same position but we cannot dictate it to anyone," Barak said.
"We are not blind to the fact that our operations or activity also affect neighbors and others, and we take this into account. But ultimately our obligation is to Israel's national security interest."
Gates' visit coincides with a trip to the region by Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, who is trying to reach a deal with Israel on a settlement freeze on land Palestinians want for a state.
Obama's demand, in accordance with a 2003 U.S.-backed peace "road map," to cease Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem has met stiff resistance from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mitchell held talks in Israel on Sunday and was due to continue his discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Monday after a brief visit to Egypt.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he would not resume peace talks with Israel, suspended for the past six months, until it halted all settlement activity in accordance with a 2003 U.S.-backed peace "road map."
Obama has given Iran until late September to accept an unconditional offer of talks aimed at curbing its nuclear ambitions, and until the end of the year to show progress on the issue. He has also warned Tehran that the United States would not abide endless talks that yield no result on the issue.
A senior U.S. defense official who briefed reporters ahead of Gates' trip to Israel said the United States was not even close to considering a military strike option against Iran.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States might cope with a nuclear Iran by buttressing its allies and spreading an unspecified "defense umbrella" over the region.
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