Peres plays down talk of Israeli attack on Iran

JERUSALEM Thu Apr 16, 2009 7:04am EDT

Israel's President Shimon Peres meets leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party Avigdor Lieberman (not pictured) in Jerusalem February 19, 2009. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel's President Shimon Peres meets leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party Avigdor Lieberman (not pictured) in Jerusalem February 19, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli President Shimon Peres dismissed Thursday speculation that his country might attack Iran to deny it the means of making nuclear weapons, saying U.S.-led diplomacy was the solution.

Washington favors negotiations for curbing Iran's uranium enrichment, a process that can produce bombs. Such overtures have drawn skepticism in Israel, which sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a mortal threat, though Tehran denies having hostile designs.

The advent of Israel's rightist Netanyahu government has redoubled international concern that Israel could go it alone with preventive strikes against its arch-foe's nuclear sites, even at the cost of falling foul of the Obama administration.

But Peres's office quoted him as telling visiting U.S. envoy George Mitchell: "All the talk about a possible attack by Israel on Iran is not true. The solution in Iran is not military."

As ceremonial head of state, Peres lacks executive powers, but is privy to current policymaking. As a top defense official in the 1950s, Peres was key to acquiring Israel's French-made Dimona reactor, which is assumed to have produced the Middle East's only atomic arsenal. He is also a former prime minister.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to respond to Peres's remarks.

It would not be unprecedented for the prime minister to disagree with Peres on a matter of such strategic import. As opposition leader in 1981, Peres tried, and failed, to dissuade Prime Minister Menachem Begin from bombing Iraq's reactor.

Commenting on recent Western efforts to engage Tehran, Peres said: "Broad international cooperation must be created on the Iranian issue.

"It is in our common interest that through dialogue with Iran the world discover whether there is an opportunity in Iran, or whether Iran is bluffing."

The United States, like Israel, has refused to rule out military force as a last resort against Iran. But senior Obama administration officials have been publicly cool to the idea, mindful of the unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was quoted as saying in a speech this week that while an attack could delay Iran's nuclear program by up to three years, it would "cement their determination to have a nuclear program, and also build into the whole country an undying hatred of whoever hits them."

Acquisition of a bomb can be prevented only if "Iranians themselves decide it's too costly," the Army Times newspaper further quoted Gates as saying.

"We need to look at every way we can to increase the cost of that program to them, whether it's through economic sanctions or other things."

(Editing by Richard Williams)

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