JERUSALEM — The United States and Britain on Sunday urged Israel not to attack Iran's nuclear program as 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, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and British Foreign Secretary William 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 told CNN that an Israeli attack is "not prudent," and Hague said in an interview with the BBC that it would not be "a wise thing." It was not known whether their messages were coordinated.
Both Israel and the West believe Iran is trying to develop a nuclear bomb — a charge 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.
Israel has welcomed the sanctions. But it has pointedly refused to rule out military action and in recent weeks sent signals that its patience is running thin.
Israel believes 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 Jewish state.
Last week, Israel accused Iran of being behind a string of attempted attacks on Israeli diplomats in India, Georgia and Thailand.
There is precedent for Israeli action. In 1981, the Israeli air force destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor. And in 2007, Israeli warplanes are believed to have destroyed a target that foreign experts think was an unfinished nuclear reactor in Syria.
Experts, however, have questioned how much an Israeli operation would accomplish.
There are also concerns Iran could fire missiles at Israel, get its local proxies Hezbollah and Hamas to launch rockets into the Jewish state, and cause global oil prices to spike by striking targets in the Persian Gulf.
The arrival in Israel of White House national security adviser Tom 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.