Iran strike in the air as US and Israeli military chiefs meet,00.html

Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent | June 25, 2008

THE US military chief is to meet his Israeli counterpart in Tel Aviv this week in a move that gives new impetus to speculation about a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear capabilities.

Tensions were further heightened by a suggestion from former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton that the US and Israel could attack Iraq's fledgling program between the time a new president was nominated in November and the date the incumbent, George W. Bush, left office in January.

Mr Bolton's remarks signal the first time a regime figure from either country has been prepared to put a time frame on a mooted strike. They also mark a sharp escalation in Israeli-US rhetoric against the Islamic republic, which is refusing to bow to international demands that it stop its nuclear program, and its efforts to enrich uranium.

As the European Union moved Monday to suspend the operations of Iran's largest bank in Europe, Israeli policy-makers were putting in place a clear shift in their stance towards Iran. Officials had been wary of being perceived as trigger-happy, with the spectre of the Iraq war still shadowing the region.

However, a raft of politicians and defence officials are now openly bullish about the chance of a strike against Iran. Pentagon officials earlier this week provided apparently White House-sanctioned details about a large Israeli military operation in the eastern Mediterranean in June, in which more than 100 jets trained for long-range missions.

Israeli intelligence chiefs believe the three years from early 2009 are crucial to the Iranian program.

"Nobody can explain why Iran is enriching uranium," said a senior Israeli official. "The second thing is they are developing a delivery system and nobody can deny that.

"Israel can't take the risk that Iran will be nuclear."

US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Michael Mullen will meet Israeli Defence chief Gabi Ashkenazi on Friday.

He last visited Israel in December during earlier talks about Iran and an Israeli operation that bombed an alleged Syrian rector under construction near the Iraqi border.

Mr Bolton, who maintained a hawkish stance on Iran throughout his tenure as ambassador to the UN, said he thought Israel would act unilaterally in any military strike because the US had lost enthusiasm during the last months of the Bush regime.

"It is clear that the administration has given up that possibility," he told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

"I don't think it's serious any more. If you had asked me a year ago, I would have thought it was a real possibility. I just don't think it's in the cards.

"The Israelis have one eye on the calendar because of the pace at which the Iranians are proceeding. They are obviously looking at the American election calendar. My judgment is that they would not want to go for anything before our election because there's no telling what impact it would have."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed there will be "devastating consequences" if Israel attacked his country.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on a three-day visit to Israel and the territories, told the Israeli Knesset on Monday that "a nuclear Iran was unacceptable".

Mr Sarkozy was due last night to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.