Barak, IDF Chief to Discuss Iran With U.S. Officials in Washington

Diplomatic sources say defense minister to depart for U.S. on Monday for talks with Cheney, Defense Sec. Gates.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi will separately visit Washington this month for discussions on Iran's nuclear program, diplomatic sources said on Friday.

They said Barak, who was last in the U.S. capital in October, would depart Israel on Monday and hold three days of talks with senior Bush administration officials including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Ashkenazi was provisionally scheduled to begin his first working visit to Washington around July 25, diplomatic sources said. They had no further details on the general's itinerary.

"Such trips are routine, given our alliance, but of course Iran will top the agenda," an Israeli diplomatic source said.

Recent months have seen a flurry of high-level contacts between Israel and the United States, which accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran denies the charge.

The talks have stoked global speculation that the allies are planning preemptive military strikes, though both say they support continued UN Security Council sanctions designed to deny the Iranians atomic technology with bomb-making potential.

Iran held wargames this week that were widely seen as a warning to Israel and the United States not to venture attacks.

Barak said on Thursday that Israel, which is assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, "is the strongest country in the region and has proved in the past it is not afraid to take action when its vital security interests are at stake".

Israel held a large-scale air force drill last month that, once leaked by a Pentagon official, was described by analysts as a "dress rehearsal" for a possible bombing run against Iran.

But a report on Friday that Israeli planes have also been training at U.S. bases in Iraq was dismissed by officials in Baghdad and Israel.