Visiting U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen declared Sunday that Washington was committed to Israel's security, voicing concern over the "unintended consequences" a war in the Middle East over Iran's contentious nuclear program would bring.
"I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences of a strike," he told reporters during a visit to Tel Aviv, referring to Iran's threats to retaliate against Israel and U.S. sites in the Gulf. "I think the Iranians are very difficult to predict."
Mullen arrived in Israel on Sunday for talks on Iran's nuclear program, as the United States and Israel were pushing world powers to support harsher sanctions against the Islamic republic.
He said during his visit that it was important to give diplomacy and international pressure a chance before looking into military options, adding: "While every situation has limits, we're not there yet."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Iran on Sunday to reconsider its "dangerous" nuclear policy, saying Tehran's stance leaves the world community little choice but to impose "greater costs".
Hours earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscored Israel's support of Clinton's declaration that "crippling" sanctions were needed to rid Iran of its contentious nuclear ambitions.
In her latest comments on the matter, delivered at a U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha on Sunday evening, Clinton said:
"Iran leaves the international community little choice but to impose greater costs for its provocative steps. Together, we are encouraging Iran to reconsider its dangerous policy decisions.
"We are now working actively with our regional and international partners, in the context of our dual track approach, to prepare and implement new measures to convince Iran to change its course," she added, speaking at a U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha.
Clinton added that evidence "evidence is accumulating" that Iran was trying to develop a nuclear bomb. The U.S. is in a favor of a peaceful solution, she said, but did not want to engage Iran "while they are building their bomb."
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Sunday that the United States expects to gain China's support for imposing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
"We have the support of everyone from Russia to Europe. And I believe we'll get the support of China to continue to impose sanctions on Iran to isolate them," Biden said on NBC's "Meet the Press" program.
Beijing so far has been cool to the Obama administration's push for additional international sanctions on Iran.
Israel pushes for crippling Iran sanctions
Meanwhile, Netanyahu told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday that he would push for crippling sanctions on Iran during his meetings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this week.
Netanyahu is scheduled to leave for Moscow on Sunday.
"Russia is an important power and ally, and we intend to discuss Iran," Netanyahu said. "Harsh sanctions must be placed on Iran, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: We need crippling sanctions."
Netanyahu was expected to try to persuade Russian leaders to implement sanctions against Tehran, and to receive assurances that the Kremlin is committed to freeze its supply of advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran.
But Russia said Sunday that it saw no reason to stall on the sale.
"There is a signed contract (to supply S-300 missiles) which we must implement, but deliveries have not started yet," Vladimir Nazarov, deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council secretary, told Interfax news agency in an interview.
"This deal is not restricted by any international sanctions, because the talk is about deliveries of an exclusively defensive weapon," he said.
Nazarov also said a military strike on Iran would be a big mistake and that the problems linked to Iran's nuclear program must be resolved only by diplomatic means.
"Any military action against Iran will explode the situation, will have extremely negative consequnces for the entire world, including for Russia, which is a neighbor of Iran," he said.
Russia is believed to support sanctions targeting governmental bodies directly involved in Iran's nuclear program, but not those aimed at striking the country's economy as a whole.
"If Russia agrees to sanctions, China will find itself alone and may be forced to line up with the Western powers," an Israeli official said. "That's why persuading the Russian leadership is so important."
U.S. military chief Mike Mullen due in Israel to discuss Iran
Meanwhile, Israel is continuing diplomatic efforts to persuade the international community to launch a fourth round of United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran by the end of next month.
Israel and the United States will hold strategic talks on the issue next week, the first such talks since Netanyahu took office.
A senior Israeli official said Saturday that the U.S., France, Britain and Germany have been updating Israel continuously on developments at the UN and in major world capitals on drafting new measures against the Islamic Republic.
"As far as we know, efforts are being made to reach a decision on sanctions, and to have them approved in the Security Council by mid- to late March," the official said, adding, "The sanctions are expected to focus on the Revolutionary Guards and bodies linked to the nuclear program, and less on the Iranian population."
Jerusalem and Washington have held several high-level consultations on Iran in recent weeks. Last month U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones visited Israel for talks with Israeli colleagues, and two weeks ago Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta paid a secret visit to the country. The U.S. officials briefed their counterparts on sanctions the Obama administration intends to levy against Iran, but reportedly asked them to keep a low media profile and to "act responsibly."
On Sunday, Mullen met his Israeli equivalent, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, with whom he reportedly enjoys a close working relationship.
Mullen and Ashkenazi met several weeks ago at a NATO summit in Brussels and on several other occasions over the past year, and speak regularly by phone.
Mullen will meet with Deputy Chief of Staff Benny Gantz on Monday, as well as Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin and Amir Eshel, head of the army's Planning and Policy Directorate. Mullen will also meet with Defense Minister Ehud Barak for talks on Iran and on maintaining Israel's "qualitative edge" over other regional military forces.
Clinton pressing Arab countries on Iran
Parallel to discussions with the Netanyahu administration, the U.S. is also ramping up pressure on Israel's Arab neighbors over Iran as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Saudi Arabia and the Qatar this week.
As Clinton departed for a three-day trip to the Gulf, U.S. officials hinted Saturday that one way Saudi Arabia could help diplomatically would be to offer China guarantees it would meet Chinese oil requirements, a step that might ease Beijing's reluctance to impose further sanctions on Iran.
China, which wields a veto on the Security Council, has lucrative commercial relationships with Iran and ahas worked to dilute previous sanctions resolutions.
"We believe that all countries have a part to play in helping to sharpen the question for Iran," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told reporters as Clinton began her trip, saying Saudi Arabia and China have recently increased their diplomatic and commercial contacts.
"We would expect them (the Saudis) to use these visits, to use their relationships, in ways that can help increase the pressure that Iran would feel," he added.
A high-level U.S. delegation will visit Israel next week for strategic talks on Iran and a number of other issues. In contrast to the original plans, talks will not be held between Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Clinton, but will instead be held at the deputy-minister level.
The Israeli negotiators will be headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon of Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party. The U.S. team will be led by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, and include presidential advisers Dennis Ross and Daniel Shapiro and other National Security Council, Defense Department and CIA officials.
Leading U.S. foreign-policy officials will also arrive in the region this week. Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew will visit Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, and Under Secretary of State William Burns will travel to Syria and Lebanon.
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