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U.S. Balances Israel Relationship as Tensions Rise Over Iran

President Barack Obama and Israel P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting on Sept. 21, 2011 at the United Nations. Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. coordination with Israel on Iran policy is intensifying as the Obama administration’s top military adviser prepares for his first trip to Tel Aviv since taking office in September.

President Barack Obama spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone on Jan. 12 about Iran and reaffirmed the “unshakable” U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, according to a White House statement.

Tension 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. Appearing Jan. 8 on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said 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 yesterday to elaborate on Obama’s Jan. 12 call with Netanyahu.

According to a Jan. 12 White House statement that offered no details, the two leaders spoke about Mideast peace talks and “discussed recent Iran-related developments,” including Tehran’s nuclear program.

Military Exercises

A joint U.S.-Israel military exercise that is to be the biggest ever between the two countries has been postponed, Israel Radio reported today. Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Josh Hantman said in a phone interview that the exercise was still under discussion and declined to give further details.

The exercise was moved to the second half of 2012 for “a variety of factors” to promote “optimum participation by all units,” said Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. “We remain dedicated to his exercise and naturally want it to be as robust and as productive as it can be,” he said an e-mail.

The U.S., its European allies and the International Atomic Energy Agency have said that while Iran halted its 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.

Iran’s Banking System

U.S. 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. European Union officials meet Jan. 23 to discuss an oil embargo that may be delayed by six months to give some members time to find alternate supplies, two EU officials said.

In response to the possibility of an embargo, Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi said on Dec. 27 that Iran may close the Strait of Hormuz, passageway for about a fifth of globally traded oil, if sanctions are imposed.

Iran holds the U.S. and Israel accountable for the death of a nuclear scientist killed in Tehran on Jan. 11 by a car bomb and is planning to retaliate, Tehran-based Press TV said on its website today.

Punitive Response

“Opponents of Iran and the nation’s progress should have no doubt that the punitive response to the U.S., the Zionist regime and their criminal accomplices will be delivered at an opportune time,” Masoud Jazayeri, a spokesman for the joint chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, said in an interview with Press TV.

Netanyahu’s government is disappointed that the Obama administration isn’t moving more quickly to put in place the sanctions against Iran’s oil industry and central bank, Israel’s Channel 2 television news said yesterday, citing unidentified officials.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel Radio today that while Congress had shown itself determined to place tougher sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration “appears more hesitant out of fear that oil prices might rise.”

While a military strike is a last option, Israel has the right to defend itself, Yaalon said.

Action Against Iran

Panetta and other U.S. 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 on “Face the Nation,” the first U.S. priority would be protecting American troops in the region.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in November that Israel “has not yet decided to embark on any operation” against Iran.

Even as the U.S. 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 declined at a Jan. 13 briefing to offer details of U.S. messages that are being delivered to Iran or describe what kinds of actions the U.S. may take in the event Iran imposes an oil blockade in response to U.S. and European sanctions for its nuclear program.

Ways to Communicate

“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.

The U.S. has a “strong interest in the free flow of commerce and freedom of navigation” for oil shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, Carney said. “We have consistently communicated our views on that subject and concerns on those issues to the Iranians and to the international community broadly.”

In the event of hostilities, “we take no options off the table,” Carney said. “But we are engaged in the kinds of diplomatic efforts that you would expect in a situation like this.”

Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said today that U.S. messages delivered to Iran’s leaders privately “would be the same as what we’ve said publicly.”

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