JERUSALEM Israel's vice prime minister said on Sunday he would welcome direct talks between the United States and Iran if they were aimed at halting what Israel sees as plans by the Islamic Republic to build a nuclear weapon.
But Moshe Yaalon also said that he believed a denial by the White House of a New York Times report that Washington and Tehran had agreed in principle to hold bilateral negotiations.
Israel has said it could use military force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and it has had differences with Washington over when Tehran would actually cross the "red line" to atomic weapons capability.
"(Israel) doesn't oppose this," Yaalon said of the prospect of talks. "If Iran stops its military nuclear project as a result of direct contacts with the United States, we will be the first to welcome this."
But he said that as far as Israel was aware, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, opposed direct talks with Washington. "I believe the White House denial," Yaalon said.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment on Saturday's report, published two days before President Barack Obama is due to hold a debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney focused on foreign policy.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, speaking on Army Radio, said he hoped the newspaper report was wrong.
"The Iranians have lied time after time, to the Security Council, the P5+1 and to international negotiators," Lieberman added, referring to the United States and the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - Britain, China, France and Russia - and Germany.
Lieberman heads an ultranationalist party in the governing coalition and often takes a more hawkish line than Netanyahu. Yaalon is a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party.
The United States and other Western powers have said that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Tehran says it is enriching uranium only for peaceful purposes.
Netanyahu told the U.N. last month that Tehran would arrive at that point only next spring or summer, in what appeared to be an Israeli signal that any military action could wait.
Last week, Netanyahu praised the European Union for ramping up sanctions against Iran, saying such measures were having a strong impact on the Iranian economy.
Lieberman said Iran's only aim in pursuing any direct talks would be to roll back sanctions. "But if we see that (sanctions) are working, why reduce them?," he asked.
The New York Times said Iran had insisted that talks with Washington not begin until after the November 6 election determines if Obama will serve a second term or if Romney will succeed him.
(Writing by Ori Lewis, editing by Diana Abdallah and Jeffrey Heller)