Gates rejects Israeli call for military threat against Iran

US defence secretary tells Netanyahu that sanctions are 'biting' Iran more than Washington had expected.

JERUSALEM // The US secretary of defence said yesterday that he disagreed with Israel's prime minister that threatening military force is the only way to dissuade Iran from building atomic weapons.

Robert Gates, speaking in Australia, told reporters that sanctions were taking a toll on Tehran. He said they were "biting more deeply" than its leadership had expected.

His comments were seen as a rebuke to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader, who told the US vice president, Joe Biden, on Sunday that Iran's alleged nuclear weapons ambitions now required a "credible military threat".

"I disagree that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the actions that it needs to," Mr Gates said. "At this point we continue to believe that the political and economic approach that we are taking is in fact having an impact on Iran."

The defence secretary, however, did not rule out possible military action, saying that his country was "prepared to do what is necessary".

Both Israel and western nations believe Iran intends to build nuclear weapons.

The head of Israel's military intelligence last week said Iran had amassed enough uranium to fuel at least one nuclear weapon and, soon, possibly enough for two.

As well as political and economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union, the UN has slapped four rounds of its own on Iran.

Until his remarks on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu, who is touring the United States to revive Middle East peace negotiations, had publicly advocated diplomacy with Iran.

Mr Netanyahu, scheduled to meet senior US officials as well as Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, during his visit, has struggled to convince Palestinian leaders to continue with the direct talks that restarted on September 2.

The Palestinians insist Israel must halt settlement construction before they resume talks.

Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, yesterday dismissed the newest strategy aimed at breaking the deadlock as a "historic mistake" if arrangements for Israel's security were not made first.

Diplomats recently have sought to try to define the borders of a Palestinian state as a way to give Palestinian leaders the necessary cover to re-enter the talks.

Such a strategy would allow Israel to identify in which of its roughly 120 West Bank settlements construction could continue and, it would seem, which of them it would perhaps dismantle in an agreement.

In remarks on Israel's army radio, Mr Lieberman, however, warned that it "would be a dramatic mistake, a historic mistake and strategic mistake to talk about borders before we complete the security discussions".

Mr Lieberman previously uttered remarks contradicting his own government's policies on the negotiations, and it was unclear whether yesterday's comments had been cleared with the prime minister.

The foreign minister's warning on security came as Haaretz, an Israeli daily, reported yesterday that co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) had helped neutralise security threats in large parts of the West Bank.

Israel did not have a single security suspect on its list of "wanted terrorists" in the northern West Bank since the second Palestinian intifada erupted into violence in 2000, the newspaper reported.

Only a "few" suspects in the southern part of the PA-governed area made the country's list.