By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 15, 2010; 4:32 PM
JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday pushed for tough economic sanctions against Iran during a trip to Moscow, joining a diplomatic effort that has for now overridden talk of military action by Israel or the United States against the Islamic state.
Netanyahu traveled to Russia as U.S. officials toured the Middle East to make the case for sanctions against an Iranian regime that many are convinced is trying to develop nuclear weapons. It's an issue in which Israel has sometimes been an outlier -- warning about an Iranian bomb years before other nations considered the issue urgent, and sometimes hinting that military action might be imminent -- but in which it has now aligned behind President Obama's push for a diplomatic solution.
Following a meeting in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Netanyahu said he though that there was a "growing understanding about the Iranian threat and the need to stop them from developing a nuclear weapon" and that key nations were edging toward agreement over next steps.
As Netanyahu pressed Russia to support sanctions, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used a trip to Israel to play down the possibility of military action.
While still reassuring Israel that the United States was intent on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, "I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences of a strike," Mullen said as he arrived for talks with top Israeli defense officials. Given Iran's ties to the heavily armed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza strip and its close relationship with Syria, an Israeli strike could create "a big, big problem for all of us," Mullen said.
Obama is trying to build consensus for sanctions that would target Iran's Revolutionary Guard and other parts of its leadership, without disrupting daily life in the country and potentially undermining a protest movement that could, on its own, weaken the current regime. Russia and China both hold vetoes in the United Nations Security Council and have important trade and political ties with Iran.
Netanyahu and other Israeli officials consider a nuclear-armed Iran their country's most serious security threat. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says the country's nuclear research is meant for only civilian purposes, but his harsh rhetoric against Israel and Holocaust denial have led Netanyahu to compare the threat with that faced by Jews before World War II.
Israel is also thought to possess nuclear weapons, and many defense analysts here consider the possibility of an Iranian nuclear strike against the country to be minimal. However there is concern that Iran's success in developing nuclear weapons would diminish western and U.S. influence in the region, embolden groups such as Hezbollah and make it more difficult to persuade Iran's allies in the region, particularly Syria, to pursue a more moderate path.
However there has also been a growing realism about the complexity of any military action -- in the risk that it might fail, in the backlash it might trigger and, more recently, in the possibility it would derail Iran's own homegrown opposition movement.
Israel has been willing in the past to strike at facilities outside its territory -- against an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and against what was thought to be a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. But those were actions against single facilities. Iran's program by contrast is spread across many sites, some of which are heavily bunkered, and might require an extensive bombing campaign to destroy.
"There is no single target which if destroyed would substantially set back the program," former Israeli defense minister Moshe Arens said in a recent presentation that recounted how Israel, in the first Gulf War, deferred to the United States and did not retaliate against Iraq for Scud missile strikes against Tel Aviv -- a possible parallel to the developing dynamic with Iran.
Arens said that an Israeli strikes would leave Israel fighting not just Iran, "but its allies would, I believe, start to fight," possibly launching attacks from Gaza and Lebanon.