By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he didn't know about any U.S. plans to talk bilaterally with Iran, saying tougher sanctions and a "credible military option" were the best ways to peacefully halt Tehran's nuclear program.
The White House had earlier denied a New York Times report that Washington and Tehran had agreed in principle to hold bilateral negotiations to halt what the West fears is a plan by the Islamic Republic to develop nuclear weapons.
Addressing reporters at a civil defense drill to rehearse for a possible earthquake, Netanyahu accused Iran of having used talks with world powers in the past as a ruse "to drag its feet and to gain time to advance its nuclear weapons program."
"Israel doesn't know about these contacts and I can't confirm that they actually have taken place," Netanyahu said of the report about possible direct contacts between Washington and Tehran.
The New York Times said Iran had insisted that talks with Washington not begin until after a November 6 presidential election determines whether President Barack Obama will serve a second term or if challenger Mitt Romney will succeed him.
Netanyahu said he thought "the best way to resolve peacefully the question of Iran's nuclear program is through even tougher sanctions and a credible military option."
He said that "in the last year alone" Iran had enriched thousands of kilograms of uranium. "I don't see any reason why they wouldn't continue in that same way if they open up talks with the U.S.," Netanyahu said.
ISRAEL SAYS BELIEVES U.S. DENIAL
Israel has said in the past it could use military force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and has disagreed with Washington about when Tehran might cross the "red line" and acquire such a capability.
Netanyahu told the United Nations last month that Tehran would arrive at that point only next spring or summer, in what appeared to be an Israeli signal that any military action could wait.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon had suggested in earlier remarks that Israel would not object to any U.S. talks with Iran on the nuclear issue.
"(Israel) doesn't oppose this," said Yaalon. "If Iran stops its military nuclear project as a result of direct contacts with the United States, we will be the first to welcome this."
But he said that as far as Israel was aware, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, opposed direct talks with Washington.
"I believe the White House denial," Yaalon said.
Iran also denied any involvement in talks with the U.S. "We don't have any discussions or negotiations with America," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said.
Tehran rejects U.S. and Western accusations it is developing nuclear weapons and says it is enriching uranium for purely peaceful purposes.
Last week, Netanyahu praised the European Union for tightening sanctions on Iran, saying such measures were having a strong impact on the Iranian economy.
(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Andrew Osborn)