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(Updates with Hayden comment in 26th paragraph.)
Feb. 19 (Bloomberg) -- An Israeli attack on Iran would be “destabilizing,” Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.
“It’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran,” Dempsey said today on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” program. The U.S. government is confident the Israelis “understand our concerns,” he said.
Amid U.S. concerns that Israel may initiate military action against Iran’s nuclear sites, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon began a two-day visit to Israel yesterday to discuss Iran and other issues, such as the turmoil in Syria. Iran has been under United Nations investigation since 2003 over suspected nuclear weapons work.
“A strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve their long-term objectives,” Dempsey said of the Israelis. “I wouldn’t suggest, sitting here today, that we’ve persuaded them that our view is the correct view and that they are acting in an ill-advised fashion.”
Crude oil prices increased 4.8 percent in February on concern the tensions between Iran and Israel will lead to a military conflict that disrupts oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. Iran is OPEC’s second-biggest producer. Iranian officials have threatened to cut off the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of crude oil trade passes.
Iran Stops Exports
Iran has stopped exporting crude oil to French and British companies, the oil ministry’s news website Shana reported today, citing ministry spokesman Alireza Nikzad Rahbar. The EU agreed Jan. 23 to ban Iranian oil imports starting July 1.
U.S. President Barack Obama signed a bill on Dec. 31 that tightened sanctions by denying access to the U.S. financial system to any foreign bank that conducts business with the Central Bank of Iran.
Swift, the global bank-transfer service, said last week it is prepared to impose sanctions against Iranian financial institutions once the EU sets out implementation rules.
The UN Security Council has passed four sets of sanctions against nuclear officials and companies in Iran. UN nuclear inspectors will return to Tehran for a second time in a month for meetings with Iranian atomic officials Feb. 21-22.
Iran said last week it had installed 3,000 “new- generation” domestically made centrifuges at its main nuclear research reactor at Natanz in the center of the country, describing it as a “major” breakthrough. The U.S. has downplayed the news, with State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland calling it “hyped” in order to boost nationalism.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government blames Iran for last week’s car bombings of Israeli diplomatic vehicles in New Delhi and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The attacks come after the deaths of several Iranian nuclear scientists, the most recent in a Jan. 11 car bombing in Tehran that Iran said Israel had orchestrated.
Dempsey said the economic sanctions imposed on Iran, as well as international pressure, are beginning to have an effect, without elaborating.
“We are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor,” Dempsey said. “We also know, or we believe we know, that the Iranian regime has not decided” to make a nuclear weapon, he said. Iran says its enrichment of uranium is for making power while Israel says it’s aimed at making weapons.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called yesterday for “tight, ratcheted up” sanctions against Iran to force the country to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
“I think there is consensus in most capitals of the world that Iran should not be allowed to turn into a nuclear military power,” Barak said at a press conference in Tokyo.
Military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities must be considered before the country achieves “the same kind of immunity as Kim Jong Il,” Barak said, referring to the deceased North Korean leader who defied international pressure to abandon a nuclear weapons program.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said today on ABC’s “This Week” that sanctions haven’t “deterred the Iranians so far.”
Iran Seeks Talks
Iran wants direct talks on its nuclear program at the “earliest possibility,” the country’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to European Union foreign policy head Catherine Ashton. Ashton and U.S. Secretary State Hillary Clinton, who met in Washington Feb. 17, welcomed the initiative.
Germany’s Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, warned today against further escalation in the nuclear dispute with Iran.
“We will jointly examine with our partners in substance the Iranian offer of dialogue, which was sent in writing,” he said in a statement.
Separately, Dempsey said on CNN that it’s too early to arm the Syrian opposition, because it’s difficult to identify.
“I think intervening in Syria would be very difficult,” he said. Syria is “an arena right now for all of the various interests to play out. And what I mean by that is you’ve got great power involvement: Turkey clearly has an interest, a very important interest, Russia has a very important interest, Iran has an interest.”
Training Syria’s Navy
An Iranian destroyer and supply ship docked in the Syrian port of Tartus Feb. 17 to train Syria’s navy, after passing through the Suez Canal, Iran’s state-run Press TV reported today. Iran supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is being urged to quit by the U.S. and allies after an 11-month crackdown on protests.
China and Russia vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council earlier this month calling on Assad to step down in favor of an interim government. The UN estimates that more than 5,400 Syrians had died by the end of last year as Assad sought to quell protests that began in March, while Saudi Arabia says the death toll is at least 7,000.
“Bashar al-Assad is a relatively weak guy” with “a lot of very strong people around him,” Edward Walker, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said today on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “Those people realize that if they give up, they are dead.”
Michael Hayden, who served as CIA director in Republican President George W. Bush’s administration, suggested on the same program that a safe haven be created in northern Syria to protect the civilian population and provide an area for the opposition to coalesce.
The safe area could possibly be created “under the Turks, but with broad international sanction,” though the idea is “probably not quite ready for primetime,” Hayden said.
The “real dark scenario” is continuing with the status quo, Hayden said.
“What we’re seeing now bleeding into Syria, particularly from Iraq, is al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism,” he said. “As long as this stays frozen, you’ll see the opposition, I fear, take on more of this characteristic, and that can’t be good.”
--With assistance from Jonathan Tirone in Vienna, Stuart Biggs in Tokyo, Ladane Nasseri in Dubai, Julie Cruz in Frankfurt, David Lerman in Washington and Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut. Editors: Ann Hughey, Don Frederick
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