Shaul Mofaz's comments, made at a prestigious academic conference in the coastal town of Herzliya, stopped short of overtly threatening a military strike, but were likely to add to the growing tensions with Iran.

 

Israel has long identified Iran as its biggest threat and accuses the Tehran government of pursuing nuclear weapons.

 

Iran says its atomic programme is peaceful and aimed at developing a self-sufficiency in nuclear energy.

 

Mofaz welcomed the US-led effort to bring Iran before the UN Security Council, saying sanctions and international oversight of Iran's nuclear programme is the "correct policy at this time." But he suggested that Israel was preparing for military action if the diplomatic efforts failed.

 

"Israel will not be able to accept an Iranian nuclear capability and it must have the capability to defend itself, with all that that implies, and this we are preparing”

Shaul Mofaz,
Israel's defence minister

"Israel will not be able to accept an Iranian nuclear capability and it must have the capability to defend itself, with all that that implies, and this we are preparing," Mofaz said.

 

Israeli officials have denied having plans for a unilateral preventive strike.

 

Israel's concerns about Iran have grown since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the Iranian president, and after he said last year that Israel should be "wiped off the map."

 

Mofaz accused Iran of helping to mastermind a suicide bombing that wounded 20 people in Tel Aviv last week.

 

During a trip to Syria last week, Ahmadinejad met the leaders of Islamic Jihad, the group that carried out the bombing, and challenged Europe to take back the Jews who migrated to Israel. It was the latest in a string of comments questioning Israel's existence.