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Israel sees more US 'understanding' on Iran's nukes

Defense Secretary Robert Gates reassured Israelis that the offer to talk to Tehran isn't open-ended, but some caution that Obama's basic policy on the issue has not changed.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 27, 2009

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, shares a laugh with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, during a luncheon in Jerusalem Monday. Israel dug in its heels in a disagreement with the United States over a potential military strike to thwart Iran's progress toward a possible nuclear weapon, as the visiting American defense chief urged patience.

Jim Watson/AP

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Tel Aviv

In Jerusalem on Monday, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates assured anxious Israeli officials that the window for dialogue on Tehran's nuclear program isn't open-ended.

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"The president is certainly anticipating or hoping for some kind of a response [from Iran] this fall, perhaps by the time of the UN General Assembly [in September]," said Secretary Gates in a joint press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak.

The Obama administration from the start signaled its strong interest in a dialog with Tehran, and has reiterated that position – albeit in more muted tones – despite mass protests over Iran's disputed June 12 election. But Gates's comments have been interpreted by analysts and officials here as evidence of a growing US-Israeli understanding on confronting Tehran.

"Despite the differences over the settlements with Obama, the postelection upheavals in Iran and Khameni's more radical image have brought Washington and Jerusalem closer together on the issue of Iran," says Meir Javedanfar, coauthor of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran. "This has helped Jerusalem's cause that the threat posed by the Iranian regime needs to be addressed."

Parade of Obama administration officials

Gates is one of three senior US officials visiting Israel this week amid simmering tensions between the allies over Arab-Israeli talks. While President Obama has made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a key priority of his Middle East agenda, Israel has sought to persuade the US that Iran's nuclear ambitions pose the most urgent threat to the region. Its leaders have argued that engaging Iran in talks would buy Tehran more time to develop a nuclear weapon – a fear Obama sought to quiet when he hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in May.

"We're not going to create a situation in which talks become an excuse for inaction while Iran proceeds," he said at the time, indicating that the US would take stock of diplomatic efforts by the end of the year.

Now, that timeline appears to have been moved up to September.

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