US coordination with Israel on Iran policy is intensifying as US President Barack Obama’s top military adviser prepares for his first trip to Tel Aviv since taking office in September.
Obama spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by telephone on Thursday about Iran and reaffirmed the “unshakable” US commitment to Israel’s security, according to a White House statement.
Rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear program has the Obama administration balancing how to dissuade Israel from military action against Iran without fueling doubts about its support for a politically important ally. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said last week that continued pressure, not talk of air strikes, is the best way to forestall Iran’s nuclear program.
This week, Army General Martin Dempsey, the top military adviser to Obama and Panetta, will make his first visit to Israel as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“He is not delivering any specific message to the Israelis,” said a Pentagon spokesman, Marine Colonel David Lapan.
A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, declined on Saturday to elaborate on Obama’s Thursday call with Netanyahu.
According to a White House statement that offered no details, the two leaders spoke about Middle East peace talks and “discussed recent Iran-related developments,” including Tehran’s nuclear program.
The US, its European allies and the International Atomic Energy Agency have said that while Iran halted its formal nuclear weapons program in 2003, there are indications it may still be trying to build a nuclear weapon. They have challenged the government in Tehran to prove that its nuclear research is intended only for energy and medical research, as Iranian officials maintain.
US sanctions imposed last year seek to cut off dealings with Iran’s banking system, making it difficult for consumers to buy the country’s oil. EU officials meet next Monday to discuss plans for an oil embargo that may be delayed by six months to allow some members time to find alternate fuel supplies, two EU officials said.
In response to the possibility of an embargo, Iran said last month it would shut the Strait of Hormuz, a transit point for a fifth of the worldwide trade in oil.
Panetta and other US officials have repeatedly warned Israel not to take action against Iran alone, including during the defense secretary’s October visit to Tel Aviv. Should Israel decide to undertake a unilateral military strike against Iran, Panetta said Jan. 8 on the CBS program Face the Nation, the first US priority would be protecting US troops in the region.
Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak said in November that Israel “has not yet decided to embark on any operation” against Iran.
Even as the US urges Israel not to attack Iran and instead let sanctions work, the Obama administration has been communicating with Iran’s top leaders, warning them against any provocative action in the Strait of Hormuz.
White House spokesman Jay Carney yesterday declined to offer details on US messages that are being delivered to Iran or describe what kinds of actions the US may take in the event Iran imposes an oil blockade in response to US and European sanctions for its nuclear program.
“We have a number of ways to communicate our views to the Iranian government, and we have used those mechanisms regularly on a range of issues over the years,” Carney said.