JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders on Thursday delivered one of the bluntest warnings to date of possible airstrikes against Iranian nuclear sites, adding to the anxiety in Western capitals that a surprise attack by Israel could spark a broader military conflict in the Middle East.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking at a security forum attended by some of Israel's top intelligence and military leaders, declared that time was running out for stopping Iran's nuclear advance, as the country's uranium facilities disappear into newly constructed mountain bunkers.
"Whoever says 'later' may find that later is too late," Barak said.
The language reflected a deepening rift between Israeli and U.S. officials over the urgency of stopping Iran's nuclear program, which Western intelligence officials and nuclear experts say could soon put nuclear weapons within the reach of Iran's rulers.
Israeli officials asserted at the forum that Iran already has produced enough enriched uranium to eventually build four rudimentary nuclear bombs, and was even developing missiles capable of reaching the United States. The assertion went far beyond what rocket experts have established about Iran's missile capabilities.
Much of the forum agenda appeared aimed at strengthening Israel's case for a strike, if it chose to make one.
Although accepting the gravity of the Iranian threat, U.S. officials fear being blindsided by an Israeli strike that could have economic and security implications and might only delay, not end, Iran's nuclear pursuits.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also expressed concern Thursday to House magazine, a weekly British political journal, that Israel was moving closer to a decision on a potentially destabilizing military strike.