WASHINGTON – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) pressed the U.S. to threaten Iran (search) with international sanctions, warning Iran was quickly approaching a point of no-return in its nuclear program. The White House said it agreed that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons "under the guise of a civilian program" but wants to continue the current diplomatic strategy to solve the problem.
Sharon, who leaves for home Wednesday after a visit to the United States, repeatedly brought up the Iranian threat in talks with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
At a lunch meeting Monday with the president at his Texas ranch, Sharon's senior military adviser Brig. Gen. Yoav Galant gave Bush Israeli intelligence documents on Iran's nuclear reactor.
Bush was also given satellite photos of the plant, an Israeli official at the meeting said on condition of anonymity, but declined to give exact details on the information.
Israel is concerned about the Iranian nuclear program, warning that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons (search) to go along with its missiles, which have the range to hit Israel and U.S. military bases in the Middle East.
Iran insists its nuclear program is strictly designed to produce electrical power — not weapons.
The purported Iranian threat was the central focus of a meeting Tuesday between Sharon and Cheney.
"Iran is very close to the point of no return," The Israeli Yediot Ahronot on Wednesday quoted Sharon as telling Cheney. "Threats of international sanctions must be issued."
Sharon believes the European effort to curb the Iran's nuclear ambitions has been ineffective. Israeli intelligence officials, however, do not believe the Iranians have yet produced a nuclear weapon.
Washington has toned down its rhetoric against Iran in recent months. Washington is awaiting the results of European negotiations aimed at getting Tehran to renounce all plans to enrich uranium in exchange for economic concessions and other forms of support — and has even considering backing such incentives.
Uranium enrichment (search) is "dual use" — meaning it can generate fuel for nuclear power as well as form the core of warheads.
But Israel is not happy with this approach.
"There has to be immediate action taken against Iran," a senior Israeli official traveling with Sharon said Wednesday.
"There is a time limit because Iran will soon reach a technological point of no return," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are not talking about when Iran actually produces nuclear weapons but when it has the technological ability to do so," he said.
The official said the Iranian issue had to be brought before the United Nations Security Council (search) quickly and international sanctions applied. "Beyond this point of technological no-return it will be too late."
But Bush told Sharon that the United States would continue to support the European-led talks as the best strategy for now, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday. McClellan would not comment on whether the Israeli presentation created any greater sense of urgency among American officials about the Iranians' activities.
"We continue to support those diplomatic efforts to resolve this in a peaceful manner," McClellan said.
The Israeli official made no mention of any Israeli plans to attack the Iranian reactors if negotiations failed, similar to the 1981 bombing of the unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad. McClellan said there was no discussion between Sharon and Bush of Israelis potentially taking the matter into their own hands.
Israel says that for now it would prefer that the issue be resolved through peaceful means.