By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday said the United States had forfeited its moral right to stop Israel taking action against Iran's nuclear program because it had refused to be firm with Tehran itself.
In comments which appeared to bring the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran closer, Netanyahu took the Obama administration to task after Washington rebuffed his own call to set a red line for Tehran's nuclear drive.
"The world tells Israel 'wait, there's still time'. And I say, 'Wait for what? Wait until when?'" said Netanyahu, speaking in English.
"Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel," he added, addressing a news conference with Bulgaria's prime minister.
Netanyahu has been pushing Obama to adopt a tougher line against Iran, arguing that setting a clear boundary for Iran's uranium enrichment activities and imposing stronger economic sanctions could deter Tehran from developing nuclear weapons and mitigate the need for military action.
But on Monday U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would not set a deadline in further talks with Iran, saying there was still time for diplomacy to work.
Netanyahu's comments came as diplomats said six world powers - including the United States - were poised to voice "serious concern" about Iran's uranium enrichment program and to urge Tehran to open up access to suspected nuclear sites.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday that Washington would have little more than a year to act to stop Tehran if it decided to produce a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu has had a strained relationship with President Barak Obama over Iran and other issues, such as Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
But he has never put differences with Obama - who has pledged he will "always have Israel's back" and is deep in a re-election campaign - in the context of morality.
The website of Israel's Haaretz daily newspaper said Netanyahu had carried out "an unprecedented verbal attack on the U.S. government".
Iran, which denies it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, has threatened to retaliate against Israel and U.S. interests in the Gulf if it attacked, and Obama's re-election bid could be thrown off course by a new war.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney has accused him of throwing Israel "under the bus".
Without mentioning Clinton by name but pointedly parroting her use of the word "deadline", Netanyahu said not setting a clear boundary for Iran would only encourage Iran to continue its quest for nuclear arms.
"If Iran knows that there is no deadline, what will it do? Exactly what it's doing. It's continuing, without any interference, towards obtaining a nuclear weapons capability and from there, nuclear bombs," he said.
"So far we can say with certainty that diplomacy and sanctions haven't worked. The sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy but they haven't stopped the Iranian nuclear program. That's a fact. And the fact is that every day that passes, Iran gets closer and closer to nuclear bombs," he added.
Widely thought to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, Israel says a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its existence.
Recent tougher Israeli rhetoric on the issue has stoked speculation that Israel might attack Iran before the U.S. ballot in November, believing that Obama would give it military help and not risk alienating pro-Israeli voters.
But over the past week, Netanyahu, in calling for a "red line", had appeared to be backing away from military action and preparing the ground for a possible meeting with Obama this month, when both address the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
"The line is the president is committed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and he will use every tool in the arsenal of American power to achieve that goal," Jay Carney, a White House spokesman, said on Monday.
Netanyahu has faced opposition at home to the idea that Israel might attack Iran on its own. Opinion polls show a majority of Israelis do not want their military to strike Iran without U.S. support.
An Israeli cabinet minister on Tuesday invoked his country's ostensibly secret 2007 air raid on an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor to suggest Israel could successfully strike Iran without U.S. support.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Andrew Osborn)