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Israeli defence minister to visit US

JERUSALEM, July 27 – Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak is to travel to the United States on Monday for talks with senior officials, a defence ministry spokesman said.

The talks are expected to focus on Iran’s nuclear programme, which Israel views as a major strategic threat, and on preserving the "qualitative advantage" of the Jewish state’s armed forces, according to public radio.

The ministry spokesman declined to comment on the agenda of the talks but said Barak planned to meet with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, senior military officials and members of Congress.

Barak is also expected to meet UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, he said.

Israel’s army chief of staff said on a visit to Washington last week that he favoured a diplomatic solution to the impasse over Iran’s nuclear programme but that "all options must be prepared."

Israel and the United States suspect Iran’s nuclear drive is aimed at developing an atomic bomb, a claim vehemently denied by Tehran, which says its programme is designed solely for civilian use.

Israel, the region’s sole if undeclared nuclear power, considers Iran its main strategic threat because of its nuclear programme and repeated predictions of the Jewish state’s demise by senior Iranian leaders.

Israeli public radio has quoted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as saying that Iran could have a nuclear weapon by the end of 2009, fueling speculation that Israel may attempt to set its efforts back with a military strike.

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