WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Israel lobbied the United States on Thursday to promote "crippling" sanctions against Iran to curb its nuclear programme, but the Obama administration said it did not want to hurt the Iranian people.
Iran's uranium enrichment in defiance of three rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions has spurred world powers to consider tougher measures to halt what the West fears is a covert nuclear weapons drive.
Israel, which sees a mortal threat in the prospect of an Iranian bomb, has backed the talks while hinting at preemptive military action should it deem diplomacy a dead end.
"Iran is the problem not just of Israel, but of the entire world. At this stage it is important to impose harsh and crippling sanctions on Iran in order to prevent its advance towards nuclear weaponry," Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak's spokesman quoted him as telling his U.S. counterpart, Robert Gates, during a meeting in Washington.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday such sanctions would have to hit Iran's vital energy sector. Though it is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, Iran imports 40 percent of its gasoline from foreign refineries.
Yet in separate comments on Wednesday, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said: "It is not our intent to have crippling sanctions that have a significant impact on the Iranian people. Our actual intent is to find ways to pressure the government while protecting the people."
Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington worried too-sweeping sanctions might backfire by giving Iranian hardliners cover to crack down on dissidents, and by making economic conditions so hard ordinary Iranians turn on the United States rather than the Tehran government.
It also remains unclear whether energy sanctions can pass the Security Council, given past objections by Russia and China, both invested in Iran. The Iranians say their atomic ambitions are for energy, to allow them to export more oil.
Asked about his American hosts' circumspection, Barak sought to play down the extent of any disagreement.
"I don't think that the point is about discussing the definitions of the sanctions. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Let's wait and see," he told Reuters.
"I don't think it is important whether I am optimist or pessimist," he said, speaking in English. "It will be judged by the results, and of course I hope that the results will be good and successful."
Israel has argued that a Security Council deadlock on the issue should not prevent the United States and European countries from scaling back their dealings in Iranian energy.
Western powers hope the five veto-wielding permanent Security Council members and Germany can agree on a draft resolution, which they would then submit to the full council.
Diplomats, however, say that even if the so-called P5+1 nations can agree on a resolution, it could face resistance from some nations currently occupying rotating slots on the Security Council, including Brazil.
The State Department said its point man on Iran, Undersecretary of State William Burns, will travel to Brazil on Friday ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit next week.
"We will be talking to Brazil about the way forward on Iran," Crowley said. "I am certain that Undersecretary Burns will bring them up to date on the P5+1 process and so will Secretary Clinton in her meetings with the president and foreign minister next week."
Iran's vitriol against the Jewish state has stirred concern that Israel, believed to have the region's only atomic arsenal, could attack its arch-foe's nuclear facilities.
U.S. officials Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have expressed worry at the spectre of Israel triggering a new Middle East war.
Asked if the Americans had raised this with Barak, a senior Israeli official said: "The talks focussed on sanctions ... and on maintaining Israel's defensive capabilities and qualitative military edge. Israel and the United States have some points of dispute, but there is also a broad expanse of common ground."
Barak was due to meet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden on Friday.