US gets its allies into line over Iran

If the frequency of high-level talks between Israel and the US is anything to go by, we seem to be in for a very tense period in the region. This week it was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, in Israel for talks with the heads of the defence establishment. Next week it is going to be Vice President Joe Biden.

Admiral Mullen's visit can hardly be classified as a courtesy call. He met the IDF's Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, only three weeks earlier in Brussels. The two talk weekly on the phone; this is probably the strongest personal relationship Israel has with the current US administration.

But this time Admiral Mullen came with a specific message, conveyed to Israelis in a rare press conference. He warned that an attack on Iran could have "unintended consequences", adding that such an option was still "on the table, but we are not there yet".

And then in a move certainly designed to reassure Israelis, he made a pilgrimage next day to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. No one mentioned Mr Ahmadinejad or his centrifuges, but there was radioactivity in the air.

Vice President Biden's visit next week, his first since assuming office, was put together at short notice and he is understood to be conveying a personal message from President Barack Obama regarding the administration's policy towards Iran.

There is a clear sense of an American wish to put the Iranian issue into a time-frame. The National Intelligence estimate of three years ago, which said that Iran gave up its military nuclear programme in 2002, is long forgotten. While Mr Obama's resolution has yet to be tested, the Americans no longer seem to have any doubts. Now their most important priority is to get their allies in line.

The administration wants two things over the next few weeks: to make one final effort at imposing serious sanctions on a so far-defiant Iran, and to gain some tangible military achievements in Afghanistan. That is why they are making sure none of their friends in the region does anything rash in the meanwhile. It is not only Israel that needs reassuring. The other major development is the deployment of anti-missile defence systems to the Gulf States, the next stop on Admiral Mullen's itinerary.

But to the American message of hold-your-horses, the Israeli response is - for how long? PM Netanyahu's visit to Moscow this week, in which he secured a Russian promise not to supply Iran with advanced anti-aircraft missiles, was a clear signal to Mr Obama. Time is running out.

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010