|Iranian students at a demonstration to show their support for Iran's nuclear programme in Isfahan [Reuters]
Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, has reassured Israelis about his government's resolve after he appeared to empathise with Iran's alleged quest for nuclear weapons during a US television interview.
Barak's suggestion that, were he Iranian, he would "probably" seek the bomb made headlines in Israel, where the government feels threatened by the Islamic republic but has looked to world powers to intervene with tough diplomacy.
Taking time off from a visit to Canada to brief Israel's main radio broadcasters, Barak said on Thursday that his remarks, which were in English, had been partly misunderstood.
His attempt at damage control came as Yukiya Amano, the head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, said he wants to send a high-level delegation to Iran to address credible information that Iran had carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear bomb.
During a Wednesday appearance on the PBS program Charlie Rose, Barak was asked if he would "want a nuclear weapon" were he a member of Iran's government.
"Probably, probably. I know, it's not - I don't delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel," he responded. "They look around, they see the Indians are nuclear, the Chinese are nuclear, Pakistan is nuclear ... not to mention the
Questioned about the remarks, Barak denied empathising with the Iranians and pointed out that he had also argued that the government there threatens Middle East stability and safeguards against the spread of nuclear weaponry.
"We cannot allow ourselves to be perceived as the country that sits and whinges and dreads and says, 'They are going to do who-knows-what to us,'" Barak told Israel Radio. "We must make clear that we understand the matter thoroughly and that this is a challenge to the whole world, because it threatens the whole world."
Barak, speaking to reporters in Hebrew, said his response on Charlie Rose amounted to "could be, I don't know".
He gave a similar explanation on Israel's Army Radio, but one commentator fired back by reworking the hypothetical question: "If I were Israeli, I wouldn't want my defence minister saying such things."
Many in Israel say they fear an Iranian nuclear strike, while Tehran says its atomic programme is meant to supply energy needs.
Israel has long hinted it could launch last-ditch, preemptive attacks on Iranian atomic facilities.
'Not very optimistic'
Barak also said, in advance of a meeting of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that he was "not very optimistic" about the prospects of strong new sanctions against Iran.
"I'm not very optimistic, there are difficulties in mobilising will in the world. That's why we're working to convince foreign leaders to impose strong and concrete sanctions to stop Iran," he told public radio.
"Today there is an important meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, and we should not appear to be a country that whines, that is afraid, but simply stress that Iran has launched a challenge to the whole world...and the world must move," he said.
The IAEA was expected to discuss passing a new resolution against Iran, after publishing intelligence last week indicating covert military dimensions to its uranium enrichment and other projects.
"Our technical experts have spent years painstakingly and objectively analysing a huge quantity of information from a wide variety of independent sources, including from a number of member states, from the agency's own efforts and from information provided by Iran itself," said Amano, the watchdog's chief. "The agency finds the information to be, overall, credible."
Amano said he hoped Iran would agree to an inspection date soon.
But Iran has dismissed the new IAEA report as meaningless and created in a hasty way, saying it is not seeking to create a nuclear programme.