JERUSALEM // The United States forfeited its moral right to stop Israel taking action against Iran's nuclear programme because Washington had refused to be firm with Tehran, the Israeli prime minister said yesterday.
In comments which appeared to bring the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran closer, Benjamin Netanyahu took the US administration to task after Washington rebuffed his own call to set a red line for Tehran's nuclear drive.
"The world tells Israel 'wait, there's still time'. And I say, 'Wait for what? Wait until when?'" said Mr Netanyahu, speaking in English. "Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel."
Mr Netanyahu has been pushing Barack Obama, the US president, to adopt a tougher line against Iran, arguing that setting a clear boundary for Iran's uranium enrichment activities and imposing stronger economic sanctions could deter Tehran from developing nuclear weapons and mitigate the need for military action.
On Monday, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said the US would not set a deadline in further talks with Iran, saying there was still time for diplomacy to work.
Mr Netanyahu's comments came as diplomats said six world powers, including the US, were poised to voice "serious concern" about Iran's uranium enrichment programme and to urge Tehran to open up access to suspected nuclear sites.
Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, said yesterday that Washington would have little more than a year to act to stop Tehran if it decided to produce a nuclear weapon.
Mr Netanyahu has had a strained relationship with Mr Obama over Iran and other issues, such as Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank. But he has never put differences with Mr Obama - who has pledged he "will always have Israel's back" and is deep in a re-election campaign - in the context of morality.
Iran, which denies it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, has threatened to retaliate against Israel and US interests in the Arabian Gulf if it is attacked, and Mr Obama's re-election bid could be thrown off course by a new war.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney has accused him of throwing Israel "under the bus".
Without mentioning Mrs Clinton by name but pointedly parroting her use of the word "deadline", Mr Netanyahu said not setting a clear boundary for Iran would only encourage Iran to continue its quest for nuclear arms.
"If Iran knows that there is no deadline, what will it do? Exactly what it's doing. It's continuing, without any interference, towards obtaining a nuclear weapons capability and from there, nuclear bombs."
Widely thought to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, Israel says a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its existence.
Recent tougher Israeli rhetoric on the issue has stoked speculation that Israel might attack Iran before the US election in November, believing that Mr Obama would give it military help and not risk alienating pro-Israeli voters.
But over the past week, Mr Netanyahu, in calling for a "red line", had appeared to be backing away from military action and preparing the ground for a possible meeting with Mr Obama this month, when both address the UN General Assembly in New York.
"The line is the president is committed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and he will use every tool in the arsenal of American power to achieve that goal," said Jay Carney, a White House spokesman, on Monday.
Mr Netanyahu has faced opposition at home to the idea that Israel might attack Iran on its own. Opinion polls show a majority of Israelis do not want their military to strike Iran without US support.
Some Israeli analysts say Mr Netanyahu's insistence on red lines was meant to convince Israelis he is driving a hard bargain and not caving in to western pressure.
"He's looking for a way to preserve his prestige, and the way Israeli leaders often do that is by convincing the Israeli public that they're not suckers," said Shlomo Brom of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies. "I think this is all intended to give Netanyahu a ladder with which to climb down from the tree."
* Reuters with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse