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The comments, made as Gates was traveling in Australia, were seen as a rejection of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's statement yesterday in Washington that Iran could only be deterred from making nuclear weapons by the threat of military force.
Gates's statement highlights the gap between the US and Israeli governments on how hard a line to take on Iran, even as a new round of negotiations for a nuclear fuel-swap deal looks set to take place in Turkey this month.
Both countries aim to convince Iran to halt its nuclear program. But Israel has been pressing for tougher measures against Tehran – including the threat of military action. The White House, on the other hand, wants to give economic sanctions more time to work.
"I disagree that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the actions that it needs to, to end its nuclear weapons program. We are prepared to do what is necessary, but, at this point, we continue to believe that the political-economic approach that we are taking is, in fact, having an impact on Iran," he said.
The Washington Post reported that Netanyahu is "turning up pressure on the Obama administration to take a tougher line. If Israel concludes that Tehran is close to a bomb it could launch its own military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities within months," the newspaper reported.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu told Vice President Joseph Biden that "the only way to ensure that Iran is not armed with nuclear weapons is to create a credible threat of military action against it, unless it stops its race to obtain nuclear weapons.”
“The only time that Iran stopped its nuclear program was in 2003, and that was when they believed that there was a real chance of an American military strike against them,” Netanyahu told Biden, according to diplomatic sources.
“Paradoxically, only a real military threat against Iran can prevent the need to activate a real military force,” the prime minister said.
According to diplomatic sources, Netanyahu said, “Iran is attempting to mislead the West and there are worrying signs that the international community is captivated by this mirage."
The Post called the remarks "a sharp escalation from his past statements on Iran, which have focused more on the need for diplomatic measures such as harsh economic sanctions, rather than military deterrence."
"Not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard, in other words neuter that regime," Graham said.
But Biden said in a speech to Jewish leaders that the sanctions against Iran had already dissuaded some foreign investors from working with Iran, according to Ynet News, an online outlet affiliated with the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.
Independent experts have also said that sanctions are working. Nader Hashemi, an Iran expert at the University of Denver, told NPR recently, "The sanctions that have been placed on Iran, which are the most comprehensive sanctions ever, are starting to bite and starting to deeply affect the functioning of the economy and the life of the average citizen."
Meanwhile, Iran said Sunday it had agreed to another round of talks in its nuclear program in Turkey, to include representatives from the five permanent United Nations Security Council members and Germany, Xinhua reported. But the meeting's time and agenda have not yet been decided, the agency said.
In October last year, Iranian leaders rejected a negotiated plan for it to export its uranium for processing abroad. In June, the UN imposed a fourth round of sanctions on Iran, a move followed by even stronger unilateral measures by the US, the European Union, Norway, Canada, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The sanctions are aimed at Iran's banking, insurance, and oil and gas sectors, with harsh penalties for firms in those sectors who do business with Tehran.
However, the US has charged that Chinese firms are bypassing the sanctions and aiding Iran's missile and nuclear efforts. Washington has called on Beijing to halt such activity.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes and falls within its rights as a sovereign nation. (See a map of its major nuclear facilities from Der Spiegel.) But Washington and Tel Aviv believe Iran actually wants to build a bomb. For Israel, an Iranian nuclear capability would represent an existential threat.
In a 2006 statement, Iran accused the United Nations of having a "double standard" on Iran and Israel's nuclear programs, and called Israel's own undeclared nuclear weapons program "a uniquely grave threat to regional and international peace and security."