Obama hoses down talk of Israeli strikes against Iran

ISRAEL'S Foreign Minister was headed for Washington overnight amid signs that the US and its Middle East ally hold diverging views on how best to resolve the standoff over Iran's disputed nuclear program.

ISRAEL'S Foreign Minister was headed for Washington overnight amid signs that the US and its Middle East ally hold diverging views on how best to resolve the standoff over Iran's disputed nuclear program.

The visit comes as US President Barack Obama seemingly contradicted his Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, saying he did not believe Israel was committed to a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Mr Panetta, according to US news reports, expects unilateral Israeli action as soon as April, a view given weight by Israel's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, who last week warned that a window was fast closing for a successful strike.

Fearing that Iran would move its uranium enrichment and nuclear facilities deep underground, Mr Barak said the program was about "to enter an immunity zone".

"If [economic and other] sanctions don't achieve their goal of halting Iran's nuclear weapons program, there will arise the need of weighing an operation," he told a conference in Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv.

Mr Obama said on Sunday that he did not believe Israel had committed to such action and said the two governments were working to solve the crisis, "hopefully diplomatically".

"I don't think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do," he said in an interview with NBC, highlights of which were screened during the Super Bowl on Sunday night.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman plans to discuss the recent European Union decision to ban Iranian oil imports from July 1 and freeze assets of its central bank and other entities, according to a Foreign Ministry official quoted anonymously by Bloomberg.

The talks precede a visit to Washington by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu early next month, when he is due to address the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Mr Obama did not say whether the US could expect early warning from Israel about a strike, saying only that the two nations shared the closest military and intelligence ties ever in their history and would proceed "in lockstep . . . to try to solve this".

"Any kind of additional military activity inside the [Persian] Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us," Mr Obama warned during the interview.

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