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Israel's Barak boosts Obama amid U.S. threats on Iran

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's defense minister extolled what he called Barack Obama's resolve and risk-taking on Thursday, remarks likely to help the president's re-election bid after the Pentagon beefed up warnings to Iran over its nuclear program.

The comments by Ehud Barak, lone centrist in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative coalition, also appeared to dampen speculation the Israelis could defy U.S. remonstrations by attacking their arch-foe's nuclear facilities unilaterally.

In back-to-back interviews this week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his top military officer, General Martin Dempsey, made unusually strong statements about U.S. willingness to use force to deny Iran the means of developing an atom bomb.

"The change of emphasis ... is a very important development, because it makes clear a fact that was already known to us from closed-door (discussions)," Barak told Israel Radio. "It makes clear to Iran that it faces a real dilemma."

Panetta said on Monday the secretive Iranian nuclear program -- which the Islamic Republic says is purely peaceful -- could potentially yield a bomb within a year, a move that would be a "red line for us and ... obviously, for the Israelis."

"If we have to do it, we will deal with it," Panetta said on CBS television. Asked whether he meant military steps, he replied: "There are no options off the table." [nL1E7NKCVS]

The hazy diplomatic code leaving open the possibility of preemptive air strikes, and often echoed by Israel, was honed on Tuesday by Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We are examining a range of options," he told CNN. "I am satisfied that the options that we are developing are evolving to a point that they would be executable if necessary."

Barak sidestepped a question on whether Obama, whose testy ties with Netanyahu have not gone over well with pro-Israel voters in the United States, might see talking tough on Iran as a means toward securing a second term in the White House.

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But the defense minister, a former Israeli premier, advised against underestimating Obama and "the internal consistency that stems from being a leader ... with the circumspection that comes from seeing, above, only the heavens and one's own conscience."

Citing Obama's ideologically tinged 2009 speeches in Cairo and on the occasion of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and this month's U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Barak said: "Ultimately you cannot deny he has a certain degree of consistency."

"You may not like what he does (but) you discern a man who is capable and ready to undertake the fiercest of political risks to his survival, in order to make good on what he believes in," said Barak, who met Obama in Washington last week.

"We are asked, sometimes, whether Obama is really a soft appeaser. To that, I say: 'Go ask Osama bin Laden.'"

U.S. special forces killed the long elusive al Qaeda leader in a lightning raid on his Pakistan hideout last May.

Reputed to have the region's sole nuclear arsenal, Israel sees an existential menace in Iran's uranium enrichment, ballistic missile projects and vitriol against the Jewish state.

The Obama administration, which is spearheading international efforts to rein in Tehran through sanctions, has come out against the possibility of its main Middle East ally lashing out alone against the Iranians because of the risk of reprisals against U.S. Gulf assets and shocks to energy markets.

"My biggest worry is they (Iran) will miscalculate our resolve," Dempsey said on CNN. "Any miscalculation could mean that we are drawn into conflict, and that would be a tragedy for the region and the world.

"We are trying to establish some confidence on the part of the Israelis that we recognize their concerns and are collaborating with them on addressing them," added Dempsey, who has said there was no guarantee Israel would inform Washington in advance about any sneak attack on Iran.

Barak said Israeli-U.S. defense coordination was "absolutely fine" and played down tension between Obama and Netanyahu.

"They don't have to love each other. It's enough that they respect and understand that no one works as if they were alone, in a bubble."

(Writing by Dan Williams)

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