Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon
Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon. Photo by Archive
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The United States and its allies have up to three years to curb Iran's nuclear program, which has been set back by technical difficulties and sanctions, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon said on Wednesday.

Saying Iran remained the government's biggest worry, Yaalon did not mention possible unilateral military strikes by Israel, saying he hoped U.S.-led action against Tehran would be successful.

"I believe that this effort will grow, and will include areas beyond sanctions, to convince the Iranian regime that, effectively, it must choose between continuing to seek nuclear capability and surviving," Ya'alon told Israel Radio. "I don't know if it will happen in 2011 or in 2012, but we are talking in terms of the next three years."

Ya'alon, a former armed forces chief, noted Iran's uranium enrichment plan had suffered setbacks. Some analysts have seen signs of foreign sabotage in incidents such as the corruption of Iranian computer networks by a virus.

"These difficulties postpone the timeline, of course. Thus we cannot talk about a 'point of no return'. Iran does not currently have the ability to make a nuclear bomb on its own," Ya'alon said. "I hope it won't succeed at all and that the Western world's effort will ultimately deny Iran a nuclear capability."

Ya'alon had previously been hawkish on Iran, saying Israel, believed to have region's only nuclear arsenal, should attack Iran rather than see it get the bomb.

Other officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have been tight-lipped about the military option, which would face big tactical and diplomatic hurdles.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday Iran will retain its right to pursue nuclear technology.

Speaking about next month's planned nuclear talks with world powers in Istanbul, Ahmadinejad said "We are willing to cooperate with [them] in Istanbul, but all of them should acknowledge Iran's right to pursue nuclear technology and know that we will not retreat on inch from these rights."

The six world powers - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - demand that Iran suspend its controversial uranium enrichment, in line with five United Nations Security Council resolutions, four of them with sanctions, designed to make sure the Islamic state is not pursuing a secret military program.

While denying the existence of military nuclear programs, Tehran has referenced its right as a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory and International Atomic Energy Agency member, saying, like any other country, it has the right to have civil nuclear projects, including uranium enrichment.