Posted on Fri, Jan. 21, 2005
Cheney says U.S. to confront Iran
Israel might act first to destroy Mideast nation's nuclear program, vice president says
By PAUL RICHTER
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON "” In bluntly threatening terms on inauguration day, Vice President Dick Cheney removed any doubt Thursday that in its second term the Bush administration intends to confront the theocracy in Iran directly.
Cheney, who often has delivered the Bush team's toughest warnings internationally, said Iran is "right at the top" of the administration's list of world trouble spots, and expressed concern that Israel "might well decide to act first" to destroy Iran's nuclear program.
The Israelis would let the rest of the world "worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterward," he added in an MSNBC interview.
The tough talk on this day was part of the administration's attempt to halt what Iran contends is a peaceful, civilian nuclear energy program but what Washington believes is a clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons.
Facing weak diplomatic and military options, the Bush administration has issued increasingly stern warnings in hopes threats of sanctions and international isolation would convince Iran to shun nuclear weapons.
Both President Bush and other top administration officials have spoken in menacing terms about Iran in recent days.
But Cheney's words marked the first time a senior official has amplified the threat by suggesting the United States could be unable to prevent a military attack by its close allies in Jerusalem, said analysts and diplomats.
The startling reference to an Israeli attack was "the kind of strong language that will get their attention in Tehran," said one allied diplomat in Washington, who asked to remain unidentified.
"There's a rhetorical escalation here: They've ratcheted up the threat level by bringing Israel in," said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department official during the Clinton administration. "They're using the fact of the inauguration, and the uncertainty people have about where they're going in the next term, to say, ˜Look, we're not going to let up on Iran.'"
Despite Iranian denials, Cheney said the United States believes Tehran has a "fairly robust, new nuclear program." Germany, France and Britain are trying to negotiate with Iran on the issue, an approach U.S. officials say they support but refuse to join as they express doubts over its prospects.
Cheney said the American emphasis is on diplomacy and supporting the European efforts. But he added, "At some point, if the Iranians don't live up to their commitments, the next step will be to take it to the United Nations Security Council and seek the imposition of international sanctions."
U.S. officials cited Iraq's failure to live up to U.N. resolutions on its weapons programs as a reason for launching the war against that nation that has been going on for nearly two years. Despite the administration's insistence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, no such weapons have been found.
Reports have swirled over recent weeks that U.S. officials have contemplated ways of taking military action against Iran, but Cheney raised the stakes by suggesting Israel might step in and act first. Cheney addressed the issue when asked whether the United States could ask Israel to take the lead in military action against Iran.
"One of the concerns that people have is that Israel might do it without being asked," Cheney said. "If, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability "” given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel "” the Israelis might well decide to act first."
Israeli analysts have said they believe Iran could develop a bomb in two to three years; U.S. intelligence has predicted it could take slightly longer. Israeli officials have said they might turn to military strikes as a last resort and as a way to set the Iranian program back by 10 to 15 years.
This week, a report in New Yorker magazine said U.S. commandos had been operating inside Iran to find potential targets for attack. The Pentagon said the report was "riddled with errors," but it did not directly deny that commandos had entered Iran.
In response, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's influential former president, said the country "will not be intimidated by foreign enemies' threats and sanctions."
Israel has expressed anxiety over Iran's stance.
"Iran poses a clear threat to international peace and security," said an Israeli diplomat, who asked to remain unidentified.
"Iran is a leading sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East, while actively developing weapons of mass destruction and nuclear programs. The world should unite and pressure Iran from these destructive activities."