WASHINGTON — In bluntly threatening terms on Inauguration Day, Vice President Dick Cheney removed any doubt that in its second term the Bush administration intended to directly confront the theocracy in Tehran.
Cheney, who often has delivered the Bush team's toughest warnings to foreign capitals, said Iran was "right at the top" of the administration's list of world trouble spots, and expressed concern that Israel "might well decide to act first" to destroy Iran's nuclear program. The Israelis would let the rest of the world "worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterward," he added in a radio interview with Don Imus that was also broadcast on MSNBC.
The tough talk was part of the administration's attempt to halt what Iran contends is a peaceful, civilian nuclear energy program but which Washington believes is a clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons.
Facing weak diplomatic and military options, the administration has issued increasingly stern warnings in hopes that threats of sanctions and international isolation will convince Iran to shun nuclear weapons. President Bush and other top administration officials also have spoken in menacing terms about Iran in recent days.
But Cheney's words marked the first time that a senior official has amplified the threat by suggesting that the United States could be unable to prevent military attack by its close allies in Jerusalem, analysts and diplomats said.
The startling reference to an Israeli attack was "the kind of strong language that will get their attention in Tehran," said one allied diplomat in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"There's a rhetorical escalation here: They've ratcheted up the threat level by bringing Israel in," said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department official during the Clinton administration. "They're using the fact of the inauguration, and the uncertainty people have about where they're going in the next term, to say, 'Look, we're not going to let up on Iran.'
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