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US military commander's visit to stop Israel strike on Iran

Vita Bekker

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TEL AVIV // The top US military commander will arrive in Tel Aviv tomorrow on a visit that analysts say is aimed at dissuading Israel from attacking Iran's nuclear sites amid heightened speculation that the country is preparing for such a strike.

Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be on his first official trip to Israel since taking on his new role in September and is expected to meet the Israeli army chief, Benny Gantz, and top officials, including the defence minister, Ehud Barak.

Iran's nuclear programme, which the West claims is intended to develop a nuclear bomb but which Tehran insists is for civilian purposes, is expected to top the agenda.

"The two countries don't see the solution for Iran in the same way," said Yoel Guzansky, a former government official who helped coordinate Israel's approach to Iran from 2005 to 2009. and is currently a researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

"The Americans are worried that Israel will attack the Iranian nuclear installations. I am sure Dempsey will tell the Israelis to wait for the [international] sanctions to work."

The US general's visit comes during a high point of tension between the Islamic republic and the West. Both the US and the European Union have threatened to impose new sanctions on Iran that would significantly limit its ability to sell oil on the global market. Tehran has reacted by warning it would shut the shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz that are used to transfer a fifth of the world's oil.

Iran also has blamed Israel, the US and Britain for last week's assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in at least the fourth such killing reported in two years.

Yesterday Iran's envoy to the UN atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said a high-level delegation would visit Iran from January 29 to 31 to discuss issues it has over Tehran's nuclear programme,

Israel has been at odds with the US on the fastest and most effective way to hinder Iran from developing nuclear arms. Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, told the US television network CBS last week that the best course of action is continued economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Iran.

But Israel considers those measures insufficient. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday told an Israeli parliamentary committee that without international sanctions on Iran's central bank and oil industry, Israel's archenemy will not halt its nuclear plans.

Analysts say Israel's growing frustration may eventually lead it to strike Iran, even if it does not obtain American consent, because it may eventually view an Iranian nuclear weapon as more of a security threat than souring ties with the US.

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"Every day that passes with the Iranian programme continuing and not being resolved makes the Israeli military option more realistic," said David Menashri, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies.

For the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, analysts say the main worry of an Israeli strike on Iran is political, because such a move may spur oil prices to soar, slow the US economic recovery and hurt Mr Obama's re-election chances in November's ballot.

In what appears to be a bid to tone down in the war of words with Iran, a joint missile-defence exercise by the US and Israel that involves thousands of American and Israeli soldiers was cancelled this week. The drill was designed to test air defence systems against missiles and rockets from a range that would include Iran.

Despite US opposition, there is uncertainty about whether Israel, should it resolve to act militarily, would wait until after the US election in November or strike beforehand and risk angering its closest ally.

"Israel is really frustrated and may see itself as being alone in dealing with Iran," said Mr Guzansky. "The US is in an election year and Obama may not face off Iran" as Israel would want him to, he added. Next page

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