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.' "
Despite Iranian denials, Cheney said the United States believed Tehran had a "fairly robust, new nuclear program." Germany, France and Britain are trying to negotiate with Iran on the issue, an approach U.S. officials say they support but refuse to join as they express doubts over its prospects.
Cheney said the American emphasis was on diplomacy and supporting the European efforts. But he added, "At some point, if the Iranians don't live up to their commitments, the next step will be to take it to the United Nations Security Council and seek the imposition of international sanctions."
U.S. officials cited Iraq's failure to live up to U.N. resolutions on its weapons programs as a reason for launching war in that country. Despite the administration's insistence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, none have been found.
Reports have swirled in recent weeks that U.S. officials have contemplated ways of taking military action against Iran, but Cheney raised the stakes by suggesting that Israel might act first. Cheney addressed the issue when asked whether the U.S. could ask Israel to lead military action against Iran.
"One of the concerns that people have is that Israel might do it without being asked," Cheney said. "If in fact the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability -- given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel -- the Israelis might well decide to act first."
Israeli analysts have said they believe Iran could develop a bomb in two to three years; U.S. intelligence has predicted it could take slightly longer. Israeli officials have said they might turn to military strikes as a last resort.
But military strikes would have no value if Iran developed the ability to enrich uranium, which Israel believes is possible in within a year, the officials said. At that point, the Iranians would be able to disperse their equipment sufficiently to put it beyond the reach of any attacker.
Cheney's comments come at a time when there has been increasing public discussion of the possibility of military strikes, and heated public exchanges from officials in Washington and Tehran on the nuclear program.
On Monday, Bush said in an interview that he could not rule out the use of military force if Tehran could not be persuaded to abandon its efforts. On Tuesday, during her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice condemned Iran for its support of terrorism and its hostility toward Israel. She included Iran among six "outposts of tyranny" that would be targeted by the State Department. Iran was also one of the three nations -- along with Iraq and North Korea -- that Bush described as an "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of Union address.