NEW YORK // Joe Biden, the US vice president, told a powerful pro-Israel lobby yesterday that the US was ready to use military force if nuclear talks with Iran fail.
Mr Biden said the US still prefers to find a diplomatic means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but reiterated the Obama administration's resolve to use force.
"Big nations can't bluff and … President Barack Obama is not bluffing," Mr Biden said to more than 13,000 Israel supporters at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee's (Aipac) annual policy conference in Washington. "We are not looking for war [but] all options, including military force, are on the table."
While acknowledging that the window for a negotiated outcome is closing, Mr Biden warned that Israel or the US risks losing the international community's important support if it used the military option before all others had been exhausted.
"It is critically important for the whole world to know we did everything in our power, we did everything that reasonably could have been expected, to avoid any confrontation," Mr Biden said, drawing faint applause from both Democrats and Republicans in attendance. "That matters because God forbid we have to act, it's important that the rest of the world is with us."
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed the conference by satellite after Mr Biden, took a harder line on Iran's nuclear programme, saying that Tehran must be prevented even from acquiring any form of nuclear capability, civilian or military.
His remarks reflected the disagreements that still remain between Washington and Tel Aviv over how best to prevent Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"We have to stop its nuclear enrichment programme before it's too late," Mr Netanyahu said, before dismissing the ability of sanctions and negotiations to dissuade the Iranian regime from pursuing its nuclear goals.
"Diplomacy has not worked … sanctions have hit the Iranian economy hard, that is true, but Iran's leaders just grit their teeth and move forward," Mr Netanyahu said. "Words alone will not stop Iran, sanctions alone will not stop Iran. Sanctions must be coupled with a clear and credible military threat."
It was widely reported last week that this year's Aipac conference, which ends tomorrow, will culminate in a mass lobbying effort by attendees to persuade law makers to officially designate Israel a major strategic ally of the United States, a designation that until now has never been awarded.
Attendees will also press lawmakers to pass a bill that has already been introduced in the Senate that "urges" the White House to "stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support" if Tel Aviv launches a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear infrastructure, in what would be the strongest support from Congress yet on military action.
Both speeches yesterday were a prelude to US President Barack Obama's visit to the Middle East later this month, his first foreign trip of his second term.
Mr Biden also addressed the US response to the political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, saying that only through engagement and patience will the US navigate the challenges of the transition in Egypt and other Arab Spring countries.
Along with the issue of Iran's nuclear programme, Mr Netanyahu said that the civil war in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be the other two points of focus in his discussions with Mr Obama this month.
He warned that Syria presented a strategic crisis of "monumental proportions" because of its stockpiles of chemical weapons and anti-aircraft missiles, and that "Hizbollah and Al Qaeda are trying to seize these weapons as we speak".
"We have a common interest in preventing them from obtaining these weapons," he added.
* With additional reporting by Associated Press