Ross, Abrams and Jeffrey see strike by ‘14 if Iran does not comply


Three former high-ranking U.S. foreign policy advisers agree that if Iran does not halt its suspected nuclear weapons program by the end of 2013, the United States or Israel will act militarily.

Dennis Ross, until a year ago President Obama’s top Iran policy adviser, and Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, spoke at an event in their honor held Dec. 6 in New York by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Times of Israel reported.

Asked by Washington Institute director Robert Satloff if they believed either America or Israel would use their military against Iran’s nuclear program before the end of 2013 if it is not stopped by that time, Ross and Abrams said yes.

Ross and James Jeffrey, a former deputy national security adviser and the current ambassador to Iraq, predicted a U.S. strike in that case.

“I think there’s the stomach in this administration, and this president, that if diplomacy fails,” force will be used, Ross said.

Jeffrey agreed, saying, “I think if we don’t get a negotiated settlement, and these guys are actually on the threshold as Obama said during the campaign, then the president is going to take military action.” He predicted the decision would come halfway through 2013.

Iran commander: If Israel attacks, ‘nothing will remain’


Iran’s top Revolutionary Guard commander warned that “nothing will remain” if Israel takes military action against Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities.

“Our response to Israel is clear: I think nothing will remain of Israel” should it attack Iran, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari said Sunday, providing more specifics than are typically included in Iranian threats, according to The Associated Press.

“Given Israel’s small land area and its vulnerability to a massive volume of Iran’s missiles, I don’t think any spot in Israel will remain safe,” he said.

Jafari also warned that Iran might close the Straits of Hormuz if it is attacked, withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and hit U.S. bases in the Middle East, AP reported.

“The U.S. military bases sprawled around Iran are considered a big vulnerability. Even the missile shields that they have set up, based on information we have, could only work for a few missiles, but when exposed to a massive volume of missiles the shields will lose their efficiency and will not work,” he said.

Jafari's comments come as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been calling for the United States to set “red lines” on Iran's nuclear program.

GOP senators plan resolution promising support should Israel strike Iran


Republican senators plan to introduce a non-binding resolution pledging military, economic and diplomatic backing for Israel should it strike Iran.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told JTA on Tuesday that he and Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) were drafting the resolution for introduction next month in the Senate.

Graham, attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa this week, said he was seeking Democratic co-sponsors.

The resolution would underscore the Senate’s hopes for peace and for sanctions to force Iran to make its nuclear program more transparent, he said.

“But in the event Israel had to take preventive action, we would have their back,” Graham said, in terms of military, economic and diplomatic support.

Romney would support Israel strike on Iran, senior aide says


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would support an Israeli decision to use military force to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, a senior aide said on Sunday.

Romney met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on the second leg of a trip show display his foreign policy credentials in his race to unseat President Barack Obama in the Nov. 6 election.

Shortly before talks with Netanyahu, Romney’s senior national security aide, Dan Senor, told reporters travelling with the candidate:

“If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision.”

The comment seemed to put Romney at odds with Obama’s efforts to press Israel to avoid any preemptive strike before tough Western economic sanctions against Iran run their course.

Senor later expanded on his remarks, saying Romney felt “we should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course”.

It was Romney’s “fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so” and “no option should be excluded”, Senor said, adding that “Romney recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it”.

Standing beside Netanyahu at the Israeli leader’s office, Romney said only that Iran’s effort to become a nuclear power “is one which I take with great seriousness”.

The failure of talks between Iran and six world powers to secure a breakthrough in curbing what the West fears is a drive to develop nuclear weapons has raised international concern that Israel may opt for a go-it-alone military strike.

Netanyahu issued his customary call for stronger measures behind the sanctions to curb Iran’s programme, which Israel sees as a threat to its existence. Iran says its project is for peaceful purposes.

“STRONG MILITARY THREAT”

“We have to be honest that sanctions have not set back the Tehran program one iota and that a strong military threat coupled with sanctions are needed to have a chance to change the situation,” Netanyahu said.

Israel, widely assumed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed state, has warned it is only a matter of time before Iran’s nuclear programme achieves a “zone of immunity” in which bombs will not be able to effectively strike uranium enrichment facilities buried deep underground.

Though Washington has been pressing Israel not to launch a solo strike on Iran, Obama has not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to curb Iran’s nuclear drive.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said on Sunday that Obama’s national security adviser had briefed Netanyahu on a U.S. contingency plan to attack Iran. A senior Israeli official denied the report. [ID: nL6E8IT0P2].

In an effort that appeared timed to upstage Romney’s visit to Israel, Obama signed a measure on Friday to strengthen U.S.-Israeli military ties and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to visit Israel later this week.

Romney’s overseas tour got off to a rocky start, when he angered the British by questioning whether London was ready for the Olympics, a statement he was forced to clarify after a rebuke from Prime Minister David Cameron.

His visit to Israel gives him the opportunity to appeal to both Jewish voters and pro-Israel evangelical voters and contrast himself with Obama, who has a strained relationship with Netanyahu.

Romney has sharply criticised Obama’s handling of Iran as not being tough enough.

According to excepts of a speech Romney was to deliver on Sunday evening, the former Massachusetts governor planned to say that an aggressive approach to Tehran was needed to protect against a threat to the very existence of Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the turbulent Middle East.

“When Iran’s leaders deny the Holocaust or speak of wiping this nation off the map, only the naïve – or worse – will dismiss it as an excess of rhetoric,” the text of the speech included.

“Make no mistake: the ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defences. They want to know who will object, and who will look the other way.”

“My message to the people of Israel and the leaders of Iran is one and the same: I will not look away; and neither will my country,” the text said.

After his meeting with Netanyahu, Romney met with President Shimon Peres, opposition head Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He then headed to the Western Wall, Judaism’s most revered site.

Wearing a black Jewish skullcap and surrounded by a determined throng of security personnel who cleared a path for him, Romney carefully navigated his way through hundreds of worshippers, some of whom shouted out cries of support.

Romney ends his trip on Monday with a fundraiser for a crowd of mostly Jewish Americans who live in Israel.

The Romney campaign initially had declared the fundraiser off limits to reporters, but on Sunday said it would allow press coverage after journalists complained the campaign was reneging on a prior agreement to open more of its finance events.

Israel strike on Iran would be disaster, Shaul Mofaz says


A former deputy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday a pre-emptive military strike against Iran over its nuclear program could embroil Israel in a “disastrous war”.

Shaul Mofaz, a parliamentary opposition leader who quit Netanyahu’s cabinet last month where he served as vice premier, said on Israeli television he thought Israel was “planning a hasty, irresponsible event”.

The former general and defense minister said he thought Israel could not do anything to force a strategic change in Iran’s nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Tehran says it is for peaceful purposes.

As a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet for two months, Mofaz was privy to deliberations on Iran’s nuclear program.

He told Channel 2 television in a studio interview that any Israeli military action “can at the most delay it (Iran’s program) by about a year, and it can bring upon us a disastrous war”.

Naming both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he said he was “very worried at what they are preparing”. He added: “I hope very much we don’t reach such a war because it would be a disaster.”

Days after he quit the cabinet late in July in a dispute about military conscription policy, Mofaz, who heads the centrist Kadima party, cautioned he would not back any Israeli military “adventures”.

His comments echoed those of other former Israeli security officials who have spoken against any unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with some saying such an assault could spur Tehran to speed up uranium enrichment.

Some officials have also voiced concern that any strike could prompt Iran’s proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, to launch rocket attacks on Israel.

Israel, widely believed to be the only atomic power in the Middle East, views Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, citing threats made by leaders of the Islamist nation to destroy the Jewish state.

There has been an upsurge in rhetoric from Israeli politicians this month suggesting Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities ahead of U.S. presidential elections in November.

Netanyahu is frustrated that Western diplomacy to try to force Iran to rein in its program has so far proved fruitless. Reported intelligence leaks that Tehran has been accelerating rather than scaling back its program have added to tensions.

However senior Israeli officials have said that a final decision about whether to attack Iran has not yet been taken, with ministers disagreeing over the issue and the military hierarchy unhappy about the prospect of going it alone without full U.S. backing.

Peres says Israel can’t go it alone in Iran, trusts Obama


Israeli President Shimon Peres on Thursday came out against any go-it-alone Israeli attack on Iran, saying he trusted U.S. President Barack Obama’s pledge to prevent Tehran from producing nuclear weapons.

His comments appeared to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who have both raised the prospect of a unilateral Israeli strike, despite assurances from Washington it will not let Iran get the atomic bomb.

“I am convinced this is an American interest. I am convinced(Obama) recognizes the American interest and he isn’t saying this just to keep us happy. I have no doubt about it, after having had talks with him,” Peres told Channel Two television.

“Now, it’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone. We can delay (Iran’s nuclear program). It’s clear to us we have to proceed together with America. There are questions about coordination and timing, but as serious as the danger is, this time at least we are not alone.”

[Related: Israel minister: Possible war with Iran could be month-long affair]

A flurry of comments by Israeli officials and media reports over the past week have put financial markets on edge by appearing to suggest an attack could be launched before the U.S. presidential election in November.

An unidentified top “decision maker”, widely believed to be Barak, told Haaretz newspaper last Friday that Israel “cannot place the responsibility for its security and future even in the hands of its greatest ally”, a reference to the United States.

Peres said in the interview that he did not believe Israel would launch an attack on Iran before November.

As president, Peres, 89, has little political power in Israel. But he has won the respect of many Israelis while serving in the post and his opposition to any unilateral action poses an additional challenge to Netanyahu.

A political source close to Netanyahu issued an angry response to Peres’ comments shortly after the president’s interview was aired.

“Peres has forgotten what the role of Israel’s president is. He has forgotten that he made three major mistakes in regard to Israel’s security … his greatest mistake was in 1981 when he thought bombing the reactor in Iraq was wrong and, to the fortune of Israel’s citizens, Prime Minister Begin ignored him,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In 1981 Israeli warplanes destroyed the Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad.

Israel’s prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, had cautioned that a nuclear-armed Iraq under Saddam Hussein would pose a threat to the existence of the Jewish state and ignored then opposition leader Peres’ warnings against the strike.

AMERICAN PRESSURE

At a news conference in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it was important that military action be the “last resort”, adding that there was still time for sanctions and diplomatic pressure to work.

“I don’t believe they’ve made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time,” Panetta said.

During a visit to Jerusalem at the start of the month, he made some of his strongest comments yet on curbing Tehran’s nuclear project. “We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Period,” he told reporters.

In parliament on Thursday, Barak said Israeli deliberations on a course of action were continuing.

“There is a forum of nine (ministers), there is a (security) cabinet, and a decision, when it is required, will be taken by the Israeli government,” Barak said.

“This doesn’t mean there aren’t differences. The issue is complicated, but the issue is being deliberated,” he added.

Israeli officials have told Reuters that the prime minister’s cabinet was split on the issue, while the top military leadership was believed to be opposed to any mission that did not have full U.S. support.

“Over the past several months, a wide-ranging and unbridled public relations campaign has been conducted in Israel. Its only aim has been to prepare the ground for premature operational adventures,” said opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, who pulled his Kadima party out of the ruling coalition in July.

Iran rejects Israeli and Western allegations that its nuclear program is aimed at producing atomic weapons, and has threatened wide-ranging reprisals if attacked – retaliation that could draw the United States into the conflict.

Additional reporting by Maayen Lubell; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alison Williams

Israel wary of expected Iran nuclear deal


Israel expressed deep suspicion on Tuesday about an expected deal between the U.N. nuclear agency and Iran, suggesting Tehran’s aim was to wriggle out of sanctions rather than make real concessions ahead of wider atomic talks with world powers.

“Iran has proven over the years its lack of credibility, its dishonesty. Telling the truth is not its strong side and therefore we have to be suspicious of them all the time and examine the agreement that is being formulated,” Civil Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said on Israel Radio.

He and other cabinet members spoke after the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he expected to sign an agreement with Tehran soon to unblock an IAEA investigation into suspicions Iran has worked on designing nuclear arms.

Iran meets six world powers in Baghdad on Wednesday to discuss what the West and Israel suspect is its drive to develop the means to make atom bombs.

Tehran has returned to talks, after a hiatus of more than a year, under tighter western sanctions and constant Israeli and U.S. threats of military strikes on Iran, which says its often secretive projects are for purely peaceful ends.

“It appears that the Iranians are trying to reach a ‘technical agreement’ which will create the impression of progress in the talks, in order to remove some of the pressure before the talks tomorrow in Baghdad (and) put off the intensification of sanctions,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement.

Asked whether war on Iran was still a possibility given apparent progress on the diplomatic track, Vilnai said: “One shouldn’t get confused for even a moment – everything is on the table.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that “the leading nations of the world must show force and clarity, and not weakness” in their dealings with Iran.

Netanyahu has demanded that Iran stop all uranium enrichment, remove enriched material and dismantle its underground, bunkered nuclear facility near the city of Qom.

Widely assumed to be the only Middle Eastern country with a nuclear arsenal, Israel is determined to stop hostile neighbors acquiring weapons that it fears could be used to wipe out the Jewish state.

Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official, predicted that Iran would take a conciliatory tack at the Baghdad talks while not abandoning its goal of becoming a nuclear power.

“They will be willing to show what appears to be flexibility as long as it doesn’t affect their strategic direction, meaning that they will be able to develop nuclear weapons if that decision is made,” Gilad told Army Radio.

“Today they have enough uranium, raw material, for the bomb, they have the missiles that can carry them and they have the knowledge to assemble a warhead on a missile,” he said.

“They have not yet decided to do this because they are worried about the response.”

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

IDF chief: Other countries are prepared for possible Iran strike


Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said on Thursday that other countries have readied their armed forces for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear sites to keep Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons.

Gantz did not specify which nations might be willing to support or take direct action against Iran. Still, his comments were one of the strongest hints yet that Israel may have the backing of other countries to strike the Islamic Republic to prevent it from developing nuclear arms.“The military force is ready,” Gantz said. “Not only our forces, but other forces as well.”

“We all hope that there will be no necessity to use this force, but we are absolutely sure of its existence,” he told The Associated Press, adding that he was not speaking on behalf of any other nation.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Clinton: Strike on Iran is ‘not in anyone’s interest’


A unilateral strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities is not the best course of action, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

“It’s our very strong belief, as President Obama conveyed to the Israelis, that it is not in anyone’s interest for them to take unilateral action,” Clinton said in an ABC News interview on Tuesday.

Clinton noted the intelligence cooperation between the United States and Israel, and she reiterated that “the U.S. has worked very hard with Israel on all levels from the military, intelligence, strategic, and diplomatic level to make sure we were sharing information.”

Whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will strike Iranian nuclear installations and the U.S. response to such an action continue to be topics of wider discussion in many policy circles.

POLL: Most Americans would back US strike over Iran nuclear weapon


A majority of Americans would support U.S. military action against Iran if there were evidence that Tehran is building nuclear weapons, even if such action led to higher gasoline prices, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Tuesday.

The poll showed 56 percent of Americans would support U.S. military action against Iran if there were evidence of a nuclear weapon program. Thirty-nine percent of Americans opposed military strikes.

Asked whether they would back U.S. military action if it led to higher gasoline prices, 53 percent of Americans said they would, while 42 percent said they would not.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll also found that 62 percent of Americans would back Israel taking military action against Iran for the same reasons.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said all options are on the table in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, but he has encouraged Israel to give sanctions against Iran more time to have an effect.

Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.

Higher gasoline prices, which have risen in part due to tension in the Middle East, have put political pressure on Obama as he fights for re-election later this year.

The president, a Democrat, has also faced criticism from his potential Republican rivals for being too soft on Iran and not supportive enough of Israel.

The poll showed Republicans were more willing to support military action by the United States or Israel than Democrats. Seventy percent of Republicans would back U.S. action, while 46 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents said the same.

The breakdown was similar when respondents were asked to factor in gasoline prices or their support of an Israeli military move.

“What we’re seeing is kind of a general trend that we always see, that Republicans tend to be more hawkish than Democrats or independents,” said Ipsos pollster Cliff Young. “Historically Republicans have been much more security-centric.”

A potential conflict with Iran has cast a foreign policy shadow over the U.S. election, which is expected to be dominated by voter concerns over the domestic economy.

Obama accused Republican presidential candidates earlier this month of “beating the drums of war” while failing to consider the consequences.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, one of the top Republican presidential contenders, told the powerful pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC: “If Iran doesn’t get rid of nuclear facilities, we will tear them down ourselves.”

Despite Americans’ signs of tolerance of higher gasoline prices in the poll, Obama’s chances of getting re-elected are threatened by rising prices at the pump.

The poll was conducted from March 8-11 among 1,084 adults across the United States. It has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Obama: ‘Premature’ strike on Iran would have consequences for U.S.


A premature Israeli strike on Iran would have consequences for the United States, President Barack Obama said.

“Israel is a sovereign nation that has to make its own decisions about how best to preserve its security,” Obama said Tuesday in a press conference.

But, he added: “This is not just an issue of Israeli interests, it is an issue of American interests. It is not just an issue of consequences for Israel if action is taken prematurely, there are consequences for the United States as well.”

He cited economic repercussions, as well as the potential cost to the lives of U.S. troops in the region.

Obama was responding to a reporter’s question at a press conference that was schedueld to discuss housing policy.

Obama’s remarks came a day after a long meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that sought to coordinate Iran policy. At Tuesday’s press conference, Obama said that he had given “unvarnished advice” to Netanyahu during their meeting.

Obama said at the press conference that the idea that a decision to strike Iran must be made within two months “is not borne out by the facts,” explaining that there was still a window of opportunity to stem Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program through diplomacy.

Reports have said that Israel may be contemplating a strike as early as the spring, and Israeli leaders have said that the country has until the autumn to launch a strike that could cripple Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Obama has stressed that all options are on the table for dealing with Iran. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered an explicit warning of possible military action.

“Military action is the last alternative when all else fails,” Panetta said, addressing the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “But make no mistake, if all else fails, we will act.”

Iran election highlights deepening power struggle


Iran’s parliamentary election this Friday is a potentially decisive battle in the struggle between political and religious hardliners, but it is unlikely to alter Tehran’s stand on its deadlock with the West over its nuclear program.

It will be the first poll since the country’s disputed presidential election in 2009, which led to eight months of bloody street protests by Iranians demanding reform.

The ballot takes place as the dispute with the West over Iran’s nuclear program is growing alongside concerns that Israel might attack it over suspicions of developing atomic weapons. Tehran says the nuclear work it to generate power.

With leading reformists snubbing the vote and with the outcome unlikely to force a nuclear re-think, its main significance is the contest between two rival hardline factions, loyalists to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Both sides have put their fingers on the triggers and are ready to fire. They will lay their guns on the ground if they reach a compromise,” political analyst Hamid Farahvashian said.

The result will demonstrate which camp is stronger and will have a bearing on a presidential election next year.

The clerical establishment needs a high turnout to show its legitimacy and popularity, badly damaged after the 2009 election and ensuing anti-government unrest.

“Not leaving anything to chance, Khamenei loyalists need a majority in parliament to obstruct the likely chances of Ahmadinejad’s allies winning the 2013 vote,” Farahvashian said.

A critical assembly could weaken Ahmadinejad and his supporters for the rest of his term, he said.

Analysts say Khamenei supporters are sure to win the majority as he has around 20 million backers around the country.

“My prediction is that we will have an assembly dominated by Khamenei loyalists and a minority made up of Ahmadinejad supporters,” political analyst Babak Sadeghi said.

HEIRARCHY CHALLENGED

Supporters of both leaders portray their leaders as the most capable of defending the legacy of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.

The struggle began when Ahmadinejad tried to supersede Khamenei in Iran’s complex political hierarchy in which the Supreme Leader has held total authority since the founding of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei is Iran’s second Supreme Leader.

Since Ahmadinejad’s re-election to a second term in 2009, which Khamenei initially endorsed, the growing influence of his circle has alarmed the Supreme Leader and his supporters.

Khamenei loyalists accuse Ahmadinejad of trying to undermine his position by involving himself in theocratic issues, traditionally the Supreme Leader’s own preserve.

An alliance of establishment groups – the Revolutionary Guards, powerful clerics, influential merchants and hardline politicians – have united to block Ahmadinejad’s allies from winning the vote.

Dozens of Ahmadinejad allies have been detained or dismissed from their posts for being linked to a “deviant current” that his rivals say aims to weaken the role of the clergy.

“For the Supreme Leader, preserving the integrity of the clerical establishment is of utmost concern,” said a relative of

Khamenei, who asked not to be named.

The volume of verbal threats has also increased against Ahmadinejad, with Khamenei threatening to eliminate the position of president.

But Ahmadinejad has ways to fight back. The interior ministry, in charge of conducting the elections, can declare the results null and void, analysts say.

Whatever the outcome, real power on vital issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and relations with the United States remains solely in the hands of the Supreme Leader.

SURVIVAL

Some argue that the establishment ultimately needs Ahmadinejad to survive, particularly when Iran is under international pressure over its nuclear activities and faces a tightening web of sanctions and threats of U.S. or Israeli military action against its nuclear sites.

“His dismissal could increase pressure on Iran and also encourage the opposition to take to the streets. It will weaken the establishment,” political analyst Sadeghi said.

Meanwhile, Western sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to make concessions on the nuclear issue have started to hurt energy and food imports. Many Iranians blame Ahmadinejad’s policies for soaring prices.

Rivals say he has left Iran internationally isolated and a victory for his camp would bring more pressure on the economy.

Critics say cuts in food and fuel subsidies, replaced by direct monthly payments of around $38 per person since 2010, have fuelled inflation, officially running at around 21 percent.

Concerned by economic difficulties, many Iranians are hesitant to vote for candidates allied to the president.

“I can no longer afford my family’s expenses. Even the price of bread has tripled. Ahmadinejad promised to bring the oil money to our tables but instead he has taken away even bread,” said teacher Reza, 57, a father of three.

The son of a blacksmith whose humble image still scores well with Iran’s poor masses, Ahmadinejad still enjoys support in small towns and villages in Iran, particularly because of his handouts of petrodollars.

But his image has been tainted by the country’s biggest banking scandal, which was made public with Khamenei’s approval.

Some politicians have linked Ahmadinejad’s close advisers to the lead suspect in the $2.6 billion scam, claiming part of the money had been earmarked for the election campaign of Ahmadinejad allies. He denies any government wrongdoing.

“I voted for Ahmadinejad in 2009 because I thought he was decent. But with this fraud I will not trust any politician again and I will not vote,” said shop-keeper Habib, 28, in the central town of Damavand.

The election is unlikely to herald a change in fortune for the reform movement.

Pro-reform political parties have been banned since the 2009 election, which the opposition says was rigged.

Opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, have been under house arrest since February 2011 and many reformists have either been jailed or banned from political activities.

Iranian authorities, while publicly hailing the Arab Spring revolts, are concerned that they could spill into Iran and have warned against any revival of the unrest of 2009.

Editing by Angus MacSwan

Poll: Half of U.S. voters back strike on nuclear Iran


A poll showed that nearly half of likely voters believed the United States should use military force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

According to the poll, published this week in The Hill, a newspaper that specializes in Congress,  49 percent of respondents stated that the U.S. should use military force, while 31 percent said the U.S. should not use military force and 20 percent of respondents were unsure of a course of action.

In that same poll, 62 percent of likely voters indicated that they were “somewhat or very concerned” about Iran conducting a terrorist attack on the United States, while 37 percent indicated they were not really concerned.

Pulse Opinion Research surveyed 1,000 likely voters on Feb. 2. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Fear, speculation in Iran over military strike


The threat of military strikes on Iran has upturned the quiet and comfortable lives once enjoyed by many Iranians, ushering in a new era of struggle and fear.

Like many Iranians, Maryam Sofi says the West and Iran are locked in a dangerous game. “I don’t think we can know just yet if war will break out, but I am concerned for my family and my country,” says university teacher Sofi, 42, a mother of two.

“I cannot sleep at night, thinking about destruction and bloodshed if Israel and America attack Iran.”

The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails to resolve a dispute over a program they suspect is aimed at developing atomic weapons.

In Washington on Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States was considering all options on Iran and would work with allies to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

“No options off the table means I’m considering all options,” he said.

Sanctions and diplomatic pressure still appear to be Washington’s preferred course of action. But Israel has been sending mixed signals, unnerving Iranians.

Shouting above the clanking hammers of coppersmiths in Tehran’s busy bazaar, nut seller Ali encouraged his customers to hoard his wares: “Buy and store! War is looming!”

Tensions with the West rose after hardline students stormed two British diplomatic compounds in Tehran last week in protest against new sanctions imposed after the U.N. nuclear agency suggested that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons.

Britain closed its embassy and France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands recalled their envoys.

The diplomatic exodus, swollen by some foreign businessmen based in Tehran, has heightened nervousness in the capital to a level not felt since the outbreak of war with Iraq in the 1980s, or the turmoil that preceded the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.

“Foreigners are leaving Iran … Isn’t it obvious that they want to attack Iran?,” said a teacher named Mina.

Jane Heshmatzadeh, 59, among many Western women married to Iranians, is torn between fear of attack and loyalty to Iran. “My home is here. It’s not easy to just walk away and leave everything behind,” said the Swede, who has lived in northern Iran for 21 years since marrying an Iranian businessman.

And Iranians have been stoking their own fears with speculation about what would happen if war broke out.

“In case of an attack … we will be imprisoned inside the country … the borders will be closed,” said Zahra Farzaneh, 82, whose son lives in the United States. “I will die without seeing my grandchildren again.”

ATTACKS IN THE GULF

Tehran denies that its nuclear program is anything but peaceful. It says it is developing the technology to generate electricity, not to create an atom bomb.

Analysts say Tehran could retaliate against any military strike by launching hit-and-run attacks in the Gulf and by closing the Strait of Hormuz. About 40 percent of all traded oil leaves the Gulf region through the strategic waterway.

Iranian citizens, already feeling the impact of international sanctions, are starting to take precautionary measures. On social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, exiled Iranians talk about their concerns, exchanging ideas about how to help their relatives in case of an attack on Iran.

“We have survived a revolution, the (Iran-Iraq) war … Our people cannot tolerate another crisis,” Mitra, and Iranian in Brussels, said on her Twitter page.

“It will be a terrible war … After the first strike the country and then the whole region will turn into a war zone,” said Hossein Alaie, a shopkeeper in central Tehran.

“They will destroy everything. I am stockpiling goods and have told my relatives to do so.”

Analysts say the closure of Western embassies, by cutting off communication channels, will complicate finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute.

ISRAELIS LESS PREOCCUPIED

Iran has warned Israel and the United States that Tehran’s response will be tough should they launch a military strike.

But Israelis seem not to be worried about a possible conflict and life goes on as before. A December 1 poll by the Saban Center for the Middle East Policy at the U.S. think-tank Brookings found that 43 percent of Israeli Jews backed attacking Iran, while 41 percent opposed.

“Israeli people are divided among themselves. Just as there are fears of an attack, there are also no less heartfelt fears of not taking a preemptive strike at the proper time,” columnist Israel Harel wrote in the Haaretz newspaper.

However, regularly scheduled siren tests are being carried out in different parts of Israel, a common phenomenon in a country whose southern areas often come under rocket attack from Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

“One just sounded in Jerusalem and shoppers in the parking lot of the city’s main indoor mall across the street didn’t even break stride as they headed toward its entrance or their cars,” a witness said.

But in Tehran, the heavy demand for hard currency reflected war jitters.

“People are converting any assets they can. Some are selling jewelry or withdrawing their cash from savings accounts and selling stock market shares to buy dollars,” said Hamid, a currency dealer on a busy street in southern Tehran.

But fear was mixed with defiance.

“America has economic problems and wants to resolve it by attacking Iran … I am ready to sacrifice my blood for my country,” said a member of the hardline Basij militia, who refused to give his name.

The cost of many basic necessities like bread, meat and transportation has shot up, sometimes by over 50 percent in recent months, painful in a country where the average monthly wage is around $600. Despite sharply climbing prices, most grocery stores and markets are still well-stocked.

But many factories in Iran are facing closure because of deteriorating economic conditions, and hundreds of thousands of workers are have taken wage cuts, inflation is surging, and shortages are spreading.

“We do not have even enough money to buy staples let alone stockpiling them … I am very worried,” said unemployed worker Ali Tavangar, 45, a father of four.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Rosalind Russell

Israel’s Iran strategy: Bombs? Bluff? Both?


If Washington is perplexed by Israeli “opacity” on whether it might attack Iran, that is no accident, since Israel’s leaders are themselves torn – but also content to let fears of bluff and double-bluff play to their advantage.

Aware of daunting military difficulties and potential for diplomatic and domestic backlash should they try to hit Iran’s nuclear programme, Israelis have been giving out mixed verbal signals that they hope may both encourage their U.S. ally to up the pressure on Tehran, and unnerve their Iranian enemies.

While a senior U.S. security official has told Reuters that Washington has a “sense of opacity” on what might prompt Israel to strike, few experts doubt Israel’s well-funded forces could dent an Iranian atomic development program in which it sees the makings of a mortal threat to its existence.

However, many in Israel and abroad question whether its leaders would take the risk of plunging an already volatile region into war without the full support of its U.S. ally.

Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may think it is a risk worth taking. Ever a big-picture thinker, the U.S.-educated premier gave a speech this week commending Israel’s founding premier David Ben-Gurion for making fateful decisions at a “heavy price”, despite protests heard at home and abroad.

Commentators, on the alert these days for any clue about a possible strike on Iran, spotted a subtext – that Netanyahu, too, was ready to take lonely action in Israel’s interest.

He could hope for a repeat of the 1981 attack on Iraq’s atomic reactor and a similar sortie against Syria in 2007, when the anger of Washington’s initial reactions quickly faded.

“In the two previous experiences, even an American public, that may not have been persuaded, subsequently found out that the Israelis probably did what was necessary to be done,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

“So there’s a huge public relations issue here: Can you make a credible case over the head of the administration, and get the American public to buy into the pain that is going to follow—Americans being killed in terrorism, oil shock, whatever it is.”

For now, Kurtzer estimated, Obama administration warnings against unilateral Israeli strikes on Iran would account for “5 percent” of Israeli deliberations, with the Netanyahu government’s military calculations taking the lion’s share.

Its priorities include fending off Iran’s promised missile reprisals and containing potential knock-on border wars with the Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas who are allied to Tehran.

Former Mossad spymaster Meir Dagan has predicted that Syria, Iran’s key Arab ally and now beset by a bloody domestic uprising, might also choose to join in the foreign conflict.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said last week that an Israeli attack on Iran was not imminent. He has also said there were several months left in which to decide on such action, and described Israel and the United States as coordinating closely.

But senior figures in Washington say things are less clear, with rhetoric playing an important role in the confrontation at this stage: “I don’t think the administration knows what Israel is going to do. I’m not sure Israel knows what Israel is going to do,” Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee told Reuters. “That’s why they want to keep the other guys guessing. Keep the bad guys guessing.”

Ordinary Israelis, their isolation deepening as the Arab Spring undermines U.S.-allied regimes in the region, are divided on whether to open a front with Iran. Memories of rocket salvoes from the Lebanon and Gaza wars of 2006 and 2008 still hurt.

Public reluctance has been galvanized by the unusually vocal questioning by Dagan and some other retired security chiefs of Netanyahu and Barak’s secret strategizing.

These critics have urged U.S.-led sanctions on Tehran be given more time. Israel and its Western partners are also widely believed to have been sabotaging Iran’s uranium enrichment and ballistic arms projects, though Barak said any such covert campaign cannot be relied upon to finish the job.

A Dec. 1 poll by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the U.S. think-tank Brookings found that 43 percent of Israeli Jews backed attacking Iran, while 41 percent would be opposed.

By a ratio of two to one, respondents said they would agree to stripping Israel of its own atomic arsenal as part of a regional disarmament deal. Ninety percent predicted Iran, which says its nuclear project is peaceful, would obtain in time become a nuclear military power.

Slowing its progress toward that point, however, may be enough of an objective for Israel, which Barak assessed last month stood to lose “maybe not even 500 dead” to Iranian retaliation.

Should it end up worse, “there are international mechanisms that would curtail the war between Iran and Israel”, former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said last month.

But Yadlin, who was among the eight F-16 pilots who carried out the 1981 raid on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, sounded circumspect about Israeli military capabilities against Iranian targets that are numerous, distant, fortified and on the alert for attacks – in contrast to Saddam Hussein’s sole installation near Baghdad.

Israel, he said, should “open lines of dialogue with those who have superior operational abilities than we do”—effectively, shelving unilateralism in favor of cooperation with the United States and its NATO allies.

Dan Schueftan, head of the National Security Studies Centre at Haifa University, said Israel’s recent hawkish talk could be meant for foreign ears: “Because they (Netanyahu and Barak) fear that if it is believed that there is no possibility of Israel attacking Iran, the United States won’t consider taking action.”

Even Dagan publicly dangled the possibility that he has been playing into a propaganda ruse, telling Israeli television: “If Dagan is arguing against a conflict, then the Iranian conclusion is … ‘Listen, these Jews are crazy. They could attack Iran!’”

But posture can also be self-realizing. Before launching his surprise attack on Israel at Yom Kippur in 1973, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat repeatedly issued mobilization orders to his forces while also saying he was willing to consider peace negotiations, lulling Israelis into believing Cairo was not a serious threat.

“Sadat came to be seen as desperate. But he was not bluffing,” said Abraham Rabinovich, author of “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East”.

“He clearly intended his militant statements as a signal to Israel, and the United States, that he would go to war if there was no diplomatic solution. And so it was.”

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei warns U.S., Israel on atom site attacks


Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned the United States and Israel on Thursday not to launch military action against its nuclear sites, saying it would be met with “iron fists,” state television reported.

Tension over Iran’s nuclear program has increased since Tuesday when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Tehran appeared to have worked on designing a bomb and may still be conducting secret research to that end.

Speculation has heightened in the Israeli media that Israel may strike Iran’s nuclear sites and there is speculation in the Western press about a possible U.S. attack.

Iran denounced the United Nations watchdog’s report as “unbalanced” and “politically motivated.” There were concerns on the oil market that the standoff could escalate militarily.

In the strongest comments by the Iranian authorities in recent days, the country’s most powerful figure, Khamenei, said Iran would retaliate against any attack by “the enemies,” but added that Iran had no intention of starting a “bloody war.”

“Our enemies, particularly the Zionist regime (Israel), America and its allies, should know that any kind of threat and attack or even thinking about any (military) action will be firmly responded to,” Khamenei said on state television.

“The Revolutionary Guards and army and our nation…will answer attacks with strong slaps and iron fists,” he added.

Israel, which Iran refuses to recognize, and the United States say all options are on the table in confronting Tehran, including military if diplomacy fails to resolve the dispute.

Israel reacted to the report by urging the international community to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, saying its pursuit of such arms endangered “the peace of the world.”

A close strategic ally of Western powers, Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East region’s only nuclear arsenal, dating back decades. It has never confirmed or denied its existence under a policy of ambiguity designed to deter attacks.

Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak atomic reactor in 1981 and carried out a similar strike in Syria in 2007.

Khamenei said Iran would “respond to threats by threats.”

“The firm Iranian nation is not one to sit back and observe threats by fragile and material-minded powers,” Khamenei told a gathering at Iran’s Army Academy.

Western powers have called for heavier sanctions against the Islamic Republic. But gaining agreement on more U.N. Security Council sanctions appears difficult, with Russia saying it will not back new sanctions.

The United States and its European allies accuse Iran of trying to build bombs under cover of a civilian nuclear program. The major oil-producing state denies this, saying it needs nuclear technology to improve its electricity supply for a rapidly growing population.

So far, a world power strategy of increased diplomatic pressure and international sanctions has not induced Iran to halt its sensitive nuclear activities.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday that Iran “will not pull back one iota from its (nuclear) path,” but expressed Tehran’s readiness for talks with major powers.

Talks between the P5+1 powers—a grouping of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China—and Iran over its nuclear ambitions have failed in the past.

Iran’s announcement last year that it had escalated uranium enrichment from the low level needed for electricity production to 20 percent, alarmed many countries that feared it was a key step toward making material potent enough for a nuclear bomb.

Tehran says the fuel is needed to make isotopes for cancer treatment.

Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Michael Roddy

Iran warns against rumored Israeli military strike


Iran’s top military chief warned that his country would retaliate harshly against an Israeli strike on its nuclear sites, as Israel successfully test fired a new ballistic missile.

Responding to reports that Israel was preparing to launch an attack against Iran, the Islamic Republic’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hassan Fairouz Abadi on Wednesday reportedly told Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency that Iran would strike back hard against Israel and the United States.

“America knows that a Zionist military strike in Iran would cause it major damages in addition to the damages caused to this regime,” Abadi said.

A report by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is due next week, and reportedly will offer new details about Iran’s nuclear program.

Also on Wednesday, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview on Israel Radio that most reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are pushing the Cabinet to approve an attack on Iran “have no connection to reality.”  Reports to that effect had surfaced the previous day in the Israeli and international media and have caused “tremendous damage,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman also said that Iran continues to pose a dangerous threat to the entire world and that Israel expects the international community to do “much more” regarding Iran, including imposing sanctions.

Saying that the test of a new ballistic missile was preplanned and had no connection to a possible attack on Iran, the Israeli military successfully test fired a ballistic missile Wednesday from Palmachim Airbase in central Israel, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry.

Foreign media believe Israel has missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

After weeks of watching, Israel and U.S. groups push forward on Iran


The aftermath of Iran’s election presents the United States, Israel and pro-Israel advocates here with a dilemma worthy of a medical melodrama: Advocates for radical surgery, notwithstanding the dangers it poses, have the upper hand and the scalpel is ready—and then the patient shows signs of healing naturally.

Israel, the Obama administration and the organized U.S. Jewish community for a few weeks put on hold their plans to ratchet up confrontation with Iran over its putative nuclear weapons program to see how clashes between the government and protesters who say the June 12 election was stolen would play out.

That answer is not clear, but apparently based on reports that Iran is closer than ever to a nuclear weapon, the confrontationists are back by the operating table, raising the scalpel and saying its time to dig in.

That was the thinking behind a decision Monday by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to plan major rallies in September to press for sanctions. The push will be coordinated to assist efforts by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to nudge toughened sanctions legislation through the U.S. Congress in September.

The clearest sign of the renewed assertiveness was a series of statements by senior U.S. officials culminating in a speech Tuesday by Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The United States still prefers diplomacy, he said, “but with all options on the table, including, certainly, military options.”

Explicitly invoking “military options” is rare, especially by the nation’s top soldier, although Mullen insisted he had done so in the past after reporters at the Center for Strategic and International Studies event pressed him on the matter.

Moreover, Mullen suggested that for the first time Israel and the United States were closer than ever on when exactly Iran’s nuclear program becomes intolerable.

“The time window is closing,” he said. “The clock is ticking.”

That sounded a lot closer to the recent Israeli predictions of imminent crisis, as opposed to previous American talk of a window of about five years.

Mullen noted that he consulted closely on the matter with Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli military chief of staff, and was impressed with Israeli concerns that a nuclear Iran posed an existential threat to Israel.

Mullen’s dire warnings did not come out of the blue: He is making an unusual number of public appearances this week, speaking on the Iran issue, and Vice President Joe Biden told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that any Israeli decision to strike Iran would be Israel’s alone.

“Israel can determine for itself—it’s a sovereign nation—what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else,” Biden said.

A number of media reports in recent days suggest an intensification of efforts to coordinate the U.S.-Israel approach to Iran—and how they at times falter. Ha’aretz reported that Israel is seeking specifics on what President Obama plans to do if his outreach fails, and the Washington Times wrote that Israel is withholding a formal request to the United States to attack Iran in case it is denied.

Meanwhile, Obama told CNN in Moscow on Tuesday that the United States had not greenlighted an Israeli strike.

“We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East,” he said.

The clearest articulation of “why now” for tougher action against Iran was made by Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, addressing its constituents in a conference call Monday afternoon.

Hoenlein, who called in from Israel, said he was hearing from Israeli leaders that existing sanctions were having an effect and that now was not the time to reduce the pressure.

“We are not getting into the issue of regime change, but we are focused on the nuclear issue,” he said during the call.

“We held off for a little while to see what the outcome” of the elections would be, Hoenlein said, but pressed ahead because of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s plans to attend the U.N. General Assembly and because of Iran’s continued efforts to achieve a nuclear weapon.

The plans are for a massive Washington Day on Sept. 10 that would include meetings at the White House and in Congress, and for a mass rally in New York on Sept. 24 to protest Ahmadinejad’s speech.

Lawmakers have held back on tougher sanctions in part because they also are watching the post-election fallout and because legislation usually does not move in summer months.

The most recent legislation, advanced by U.S. Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), would withdraw loan guarantees from companies that deal with Iran’s energy sector. Other enhancements could target Iran’s central bank and its import of refined petroleum.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee and a key to advancing legislation, is said to be concerned that punishing Iranians when they are seeking to replace a tyranny may not be opportune.

AIPAC has a powerful ally, however, in U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who in a recent letter to Obama suggested that confronting Iran trumped other Middle East issues.

“I believe that resolving the problem of Iran’s nuclear program will help facilitate the Arab-Israeli peace process,” Reid wrote.

Speakers on the Presidents Conference call emphasized the need for volume—they expect 300 to 500 Jewish communal leaders to attend the Washington Day—and breadth.

“Get local chapters to reach out to non-Jewish counterparts all across the eastern seaboard and through the Midwest,” Hoenlein said, referring to plans for the New York rally, adding that he hoped to draw Muslim and Christian speakers.

The effort will confront a residual reluctance to assume a more militant posture, particularly one that could culminate in a strike. Mullen enumerated several reasons why the United States was still committed to diplomacy and wary of confrontation—“the vulnerabilities of regional countries that are friends of ours.”

Does a strike, he asked, “get contained or does it expand response in other parts of the world”?

Mullen said the very fluidity of the situation gave him pause.

“We’re not very good at predicting what’s going to happen, where it’s going to happen,” he said. “And not just we—lots of countries in the world.”

Report: Israel fears U.S. ‘no’ on Iran attack


Israeli leaders have not asked the United States for approval to attack Iran for fear Washington will turn them down, according to a news report.

The Washington Times reported Tuesday that two unnamed Israeli officials close to Benjamin Netanyahu said the prime minister is concerned that the White House would not approve an Israeli request to launch military strikes on Iran’s nuclear program.

One of the officials told the Washington Times that Netanyahu would not press the matter after U.S. President George Bush last year turned down a request by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for U.S. aid for a strike on Iran.

The official said Netanyahu would not seek U.S. approval at this time since President Obama has stated his intention to engage Iran diplomatically.

“There was a decision not to press this because it was probably inadequate for the engagement policy and what we know about Obama’s approach to Iran,” one of the officials told the Washington Times.

Meanwhile, Obama told CNN on Tuesday morning that the United States had “absolutely not” given Israel the green light to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to reports.

Vice President Joe Biden had said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that “Israel can determine for itself—it’s a sovereign nation—what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.”

Biden said Israel could decide to attack Iran whether the United States agrees or not.

U.S. denies giving Israel ‘green light’ to strike Iran


From HAARETZ.com:

Vice President Joe Biden’s statement that Israel can decide on its own whether to strike Iran’s nuclear sites should not be construed as an American “green light” for such an action, the State Department said on Monday.

“We are certainly not going to give a green light to any kind of military strike, but Israel is a sovereign country and we’re not going to dictate its actions,” State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly said on Monday. Read the full story at