Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in remarks published Monday that he would support a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear program.

Netanyahu's comments, made in the heat of a campaign for leadership of the hardline Likud Party, drew criticism from rivals, who accused him of playing politics with the country's security. Iranian leaders brushed off the threat, warning that an attack "will have a lot of consequences."

Israeli leaders have long identified Iran as the nation's biggest threat. Israel accuses Tehran of supporting Palestinian militant groups and rejects Iran's claim that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said in October that Israel must be "wiped off the map."

Iran's announcement Monday that it plans to build a second nuclear power plant — along with a deadly suicide bombing the same day by the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad group in the central town of Netanya — is likely to heighten Israel's concerns.

While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the world cannot accept a nuclear Iran, he contends that diplomacy remains the first line of defense. He has not said what should be done if diplomacy fails.

Netanyahu left few doubts about his solution: a pre-emptive strike similar to the 1981 attack ordered by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin that destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor.

"I will continue the tradition established by Menachem Begin, who did not allow Iraq to develop such a nuclear threat against Israel, and by a daring and courageous act gave us two decades of tranquility," Netanyahu told the Maariv daily. "I believe that this is what Israel has to do."

Netanyahu, a bitter political enemy of Sharon, said he would support the prime minister if he carried out a pre-emptive strike. "If it is not done by the present government, I intend to lead the next government and to stop this threat. I will take every step required to avoid a situation in which Iran can threaten us with nuclear weapons."

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, a rival in the Likud race, said accused Netanyahu of making "inflammatory statements" that "endanger the very security of Israel."

"The nuclear issue has to be taken out of the election campaign," Mofaz said.

Sharon recently left the Likud to form a new centrist party, saying he will have more freedom to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians. Sharon is widely expected to win the March 28 general election, but analysts say the domestic campaign rhetoric could hurt the prime minister's cautious efforts in dealing with Iran.

Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, called Netanyahu's comments "a desperate political move." She said such remarks would make it difficult to have a "rational and sane discussion" about policy toward Iran and undermine U.S. and European efforts to curb the Iranian nuclear program.

"A war of words is not something anyone needs now," she said. "The U.S. and EU are trying to get Iran to calm down its nuclear program. Netanyahu pouring fuel on the fire is not going to help."

In Tehran, Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said he did not take Netanyahu's comments seriously. "If they make such a mistake, they will add to their own problems. Attacking Iran will have a lot of consequences," he said.

Experts say a unilateral military strike against Iran would be extremely difficult. In contrast to the Iraqi reactor, Iran's nuclear installations are heavily fortified and spread throughout the country. And Arab nations like Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to permit Israel to use their air space to carry out an attack.