JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Defence Minister Ehud Barak tried to reassure Israelis about the government's resolve on Thursday after he appeared to empathise with Iran's controversial nuclear quest during an American television interview.
Barak's suggestion that, were he Iranian, he would "probably" seek the bomb made headlines in Israel, which feels uniquely 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 his remarks in English had been partly misunderstood.
Barak was asked on PBS's "Charlie Rose" on Wednesday: "If you were them (Iran), wouldn't you want a nuclear weapon?"
"Probably, probably. I know, it's not -- I don't delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel," he said.
"They look around, they see the Indians are nuclear, the Chinese are nuclear, Pakistan is nuclear ... not to mention the Russians," Barak said, referring to secretive nuclear programmes in Arab countries like Iraq, in the past, and of Israel itself.
Questioned about the remarks on Thursday, Barak denied empathising with the Iranians and said that in the PBS interview he had argued they threatened 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."
Recapping, in Hebrew, his response to Rose's question, Barak said it was: "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."
The idea that Tehran, which insists its atomic programme is to supply its energy needs, might be seeking the bomb for strategic parity clashes with the fear of many in the Jewish state that they risk an Iranian nuclear holocaust.
The latter view has been put forward by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in whose conservative coalition Barak heads the lone centrist party. Israel has long hinted it could launch last-ditch, preemptive attacks on Iranian atomic facilities.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog was expected on Thursday to discuss passing a new resolution against Iran, after publishing intelligence last week indicating covert military dimensions to its uranium enrichment and other projects.
Barak's linking of Iran's nuclear programme to its regional concerns recalled testimony by former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates during his 2006 confirmation hearings. At the time, Israelis chafed at Gates's apparent stating as fact that they possess the Middle East's only atomic arsenal.
Unlike Iran, Israel never joined the voluntary nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires renouncing nuclear weaponry and empowers signatories to develop atomic energy.
With U.S. acquiescence, Israel does not discuss its nuclear capabilities under a "strategic ambiguity" policy.
Commentators likened Barak's PBS remarks to his assertion, while preparing a successful run for the Israeli premiership in 1998, that were the Palestinian he would join a militant group. At the time Barak denied charges of having justified terrorism.
Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Elizabeth Piper