As the United States and Britain on Sunday urged Israel not to attack Iran's nuclear program, the White House's national security adviser arrived in the region, reflecting growing international jitters that the Israelis are poised to strike.
In their warnings, both the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, and British Foreign Secretary William J. Hague said an Israeli attack on Iran would have grave consequences for the entire region and urged Israel to give international sanctions against Tehran more time to work. Dempsey said that an Israeli attack is "not prudent," and Hague said that it would not be "a wise thing." It was not known whether their messages were coordinated.
The arrival of White House national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon was the latest in a series of high-level meetings between Israel and the United States. Last month, Dempsey visited Israel, and next month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit the White House.
Donilon was set to meet with Netanyahu late Sunday, and with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak today before leaving.
Both Israel and the West believe that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear bomb -- an accusation that Tehran denies. But differences have emerged in how to respond to the perceived threat.
The United States and the European Union have both imposed harsh new sanctions targeting Iran's oil sector, the lifeline of the Iranian economy. With the sanctions just beginning to bite, they have expressed optimism that Iran can be persuaded to curb its nuclear ambitions.
Sunday, Iran's Oil Ministry said that it has halted oil shipments to Britain and France in an apparent pre-emptive blow against the European Union. The semiofficial Mehr news agency said National Iranian Oil Co. has sent letters to some European refineries with an ultimatum to either sign contracts of two to five years or be cut off. The 27-nation EU accounts for about 18 percent of Iran's oil exports.
Israel has welcomed the sanctions. But it has pointedly refused to rule out military action and in recent weeks has sent signals that its patience is running thin.
The Israelis believe that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its very existence, citing Iran's support for Arab militant groups, its sophisticated arsenal of missiles capable of reaching Israel and its leaders' calls for the destruction of the country.
Experts, however, have questioned how much an Israeli operation would accomplish.
In an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN, Dempsey said Israel has the capability to strike Iran and delay the Iranians "probably for a couple of years. But some of the targets are probably beyond their reach."
Meanwhile, U.N. investigators begin two days of meetings in Iran today, offering Tehran's government a chance to stem growing speculation the country's nuclear program will spark a military conflict.