WASHINGTON – Israel's major allies in the West are working hard to talk it out of a unilateral military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, arguing forcefully that an attack ultimately would strengthen, not weaken, the regime in Tehran.
The United States is leading the persuasion initiative, even though Washington largely has concluded that outside argument will have little effect on Israeli decision-making.
Iran's regime says it wants to extinguish the Jewish state, and the West accuses it of assembling the material and know-how to build a nuclear bomb. Israel fears that Iran is fast approaching a point at which a limited military strike no longer would be enough to head off an Iranian bomb.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday that the world increasingly is ready to consider a military strike against Iran if economic sanctions don't persuade Tehran to give up suspect parts of its nuclear program. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.
"Today as opposed to in the past there is wide world understanding that in the event that sanctions won't reach the intended result of stopping the military nuclear program, there will be need to consider action," Barak said in Israel.
Israeli officials asserted at a security conference Thursday that Iran already has produced enough enriched uranium to eventually build four rudimentary nuclear bombs, and was even developing missiles capable of reaching the United States. Much of the agenda appeared aimed at strengthening Israel's case for a strike, if it chose to make one.
President Barack Obama maintains that the U.S. is reserving the right to attack Iran if it one day feels it must, but an Israeli strike on Iran is more likely than a U.S. one in the near term.
"Israel has indicated they are considering this, and we have indicated our concerns," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday in Brussels.
Panetta would not comment on a published report that he fears Israel already has decided to go ahead. A Washington Post opinion column by David Ignatius asserted Thursday that Panetta believes there is a "strong likelihood" that Israel will attack in April, May or June.
The U.S. and its allies hope to hold off an Israeli strike at least until the latest round of sanctions — the first to hit Iran's lifeblood oil sector directly — take effect later this year. They argue that a strike would do more harm than good and would endanger Israel and every nation perceived to be allied with it.
A senior Obama administration official said the U.S. and Israel have similar views of the risk of an Iranian bomb and the timeframe in which the world could act. The U.S., however, sees a clear "breakout" to nuclear capability by Iran as necessary before military action could be justified, the official said.
The official said the U.S. is making its case publicly and privately but that the ultimate decision will be Israel's.
The West is appealing to Israel's self-interest, arguing that a military strike on known Iranian nuclear sites would not completely destroy Iran's nuclear capability. The U.S. and others say it would not be effective except in the very short term, and ultimately would strengthen the Iranian regime by rallying Iranian national pride under attack and drawing sympathetic support from other Israeli enemies.
Some of the arguments are well-known, including that widespread and unpredictable Iranian retaliation would seed more violence in the Mideast and make Israel less secure. That has been a U.S. conclusion for several years.
A newer argument holds that the Iranian regime is weakened by years of sanctions and the implosion of its nearest ally, Syria, so it makes little sense to do something that would build it back up.
Some nations also are warning Israel that it will lose international backing if it acts outside international law. European nations, especially, are wary of unilateral Israeli action. U.S. officials are careful on that point, saying the U.S. bond with Israel is unbreakable. As a practical matter, the United States would be bound to defend Israel in a full war with Iran.
A senior European diplomat said there are signs that some in Israel are receptive to the Western push to buy time with more sanctions that could further weaken the Iranian government. The Israeli government remains divided about the wisdom of a strike, the diplomat said.
Reflecting rising international alarm at the prospect of a unilateral strike, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned Israel on Wednesday that the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program must be resolved peacefully.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg expressed concern Thursday that Israel could carry out a pre-emptive strike.
"Of course I worry that there will be a military conflict and that certain countries might seek to take matters into their own hands," Clegg was quoted as telling The House Magazine, a British political journal.
Clegg said Britain had been attempting to demonstrate "that there are very tough things we can do which are not military steps in order to place pressure on Iran."
In Washington, the Senate Banking Committee easily approved yet more penalties on Tehran on Thursday.
The sweeping measure, which is not yet law, would target Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, require companies that trade on the U.S. stock exchanges to disclose any Iran-related business to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and expand penalties for energy and uranium mining joint ventures with Tehran.
The legislation comes just weeks after Congress approved — and Obama signed — a wide-ranging defense bill that would target financial institutions that do business with Iran's Central Bank. The European Union has imposed a broad oil embargo, depriving Iran of a major market.
Several Israeli officials told The Associated Press this week that they were concerned that the sanctions, while welcome, were constraining Israel in its ability to act because the world expected the effort to be given a chance. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss Iran.
Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon, who heads the strategic affairs ministry and is a former commander of the military, said all of Iran's nuclear installations are vulnerable to military strikes.
That contradicts assessments of foreign experts and Israeli defense officials that it would be difficult to strike sensitive Iranian nuclear targets hidden dozens of yards below ground.
U.N. chief Ban said Wednesday that he holds Iran responsible to prove it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.
"I believe they have not yet done so," he said during a visit to Israel.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that some of Iran's alleged experiments can have no purpose other than developing nuclear weapons.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Brussels, Karin Laub in Herzliya, Israel, and Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.