Israel might choose to attack Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear bomb, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said today.
Army General David Petraeus told Congress that “the Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take preemptive military action to derail or delay it.”
While Iran insists its nuclear program is intended for peaceful power generation, Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said “Iranian officials have consistently failed to provide the assurances and transparency necessary for international acceptance and verification.”
Iran refuses to suspend uranium enrichment, in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions, and won’t give international inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities.
Iran’s “obstinacy and obfuscation have forced Iran’s neighbors and the international community to conclude the worst about the regime’s intention,” Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Ali Akbar Javanfekr, media adviser to Iran’s President Mahmound Ahmadinejad, responded to the general’s comments.
“Iran’s position as a powerful country that is a proponent of logic and peace, the Zionist regime’s chaotic situation, and the state of the world’s economy are realities that do not make this possible,” Javanfekr said in a telephone interview.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor declined to comment on Petraeus’s remarks.
Israel has signaled impatience with the international diplomatic effort to deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Benjamin Netanyahu, in an interview with the Atlantic magazine given shortly before he became prime minister yesterday, said President Barack Obama must act quickly to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb or Israel might be compelled to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.
“You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs,” Netanyahu said of Iran’s leadership, according to an excerpt posted on The Atlantic’s Web site.
Petraeus appeared before the Senate as Obama began talks with world leaders in London on the economic crisis and political issues. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced agreement on a new round of arms control talks aimed at shrinking their nuclear arsenals and curtailing the spread of such weapons to Iran and North Korea.
Ken Katzman, a Middle East military analyst for the non- partisan Congressional Research Service in Washington, said Petraeus’s assertion on Israel “was extremely significant, particularly for what he did not say — that the United States would act to restrain Israel or talk it out of conducting such a strike.”
The U.S. has begun a public effort to reach out to the Iranian government and public to find common ground, such as exploring joint efforts to fight the flow of narcotics from opium-producing Afghanistan. Iran borders western Afghanistan.
Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Aliasghar Soltanieh, said on March 4 that his government is ready for direct talks about its nuclear program with the U.S., Russia, China and leading European nations as long as negotiations also include regional security and economic issues.
Petraeus said Iran pursues policies that “frustrate U.S. goals” in the region: providing “material, financial and political support” to the Islamic militant movements Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Iran has undermined efforts to stabilize Afghanistan by “providing opportunistic support to the Taliban” insurgency, Petraeus said.
“In Iraq, however, the Iranian regime has experienced a recent setback,” he said. “Iraqi and coalition forces have succeeded in degrading Iranian proxies operating in southern Iraq, and during January’s provincial elections, the Iraqi people voiced a broad rejection of Iranian influence.”
Petraeus testified on the first of two days of congressional hearings on the U.S. strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia, with a strong focus on the new U.S. strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Petraeus said that U.S. forces would “aggressively and relentlessly” pursue al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
“We will continue to target, disrupt, and pursue the leadership, bases and support networks of al-Qaeda and other transnational extremist groups operating in the region,” Petraeus said.
The border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan has become a base for Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, and both nations face rising terrorist attacks. Civilian deaths last year caused by the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan hit a record level, while suicide bombings and other attacks have left more than 4,000 people dead in Pakistan in the past two years.
Petraeus said that Pakistan faces “a truly existential threat” from al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups. “Additionally, the possibility, however remote, of serious instability in a nuclear-armed Pakistan would pose a serious danger to the U.S.” and its allies, he said.
The general said it was important to turn Pakistan’s attention toward the internal extremist threat and away from its traditional focus on an attack from India.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, praised the administration’s new approach as “the right strategy” while noting “the road ahead will be long and costly.”
Still, Levin questioned whether the administration was correct to suggest that success in Afghanistan is linked so closely to success in Pakistan.
Levin said he remained “skeptical” whether Pakistan “has either the will or the capability to secure their border.”
“We should not tie Afghanistan’s future totally to the success of efforts in Pakistan or to Pakistan’s governmental decisions,” he said.