An Iranian man gets gas for his motorcycle in central Tehran. Iran says it's… (Behrouz Mehri, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Beirut — Iran said Sunday that it was cutting off oil exports to France and Britain in a preemptive strike against European economic sanctions, while top U.S. and British officials warned against a military attack on Iran's disputed nuclear program.
Iran's retaliatory oil ban was the latest instance of high-stakes brinkmanship surrounding Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Iran says its program is solely for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. and many of its allies suspect the goal is to develop weapons.
Speculation has intensified in recent weeks about a possible Israeli or U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear sites, even as an apparent shadow war rages featuring assassinations of Iranian scientists, sabotage of Iran's nuclear technology and recent bomb plots that targeted Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia and, authorities suspect, in Thailand.
On Sunday, British Foreign Minister William Hague and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a conscious effort to cool down the rhetoric, backing the current recipe of diplomacy and economic sanctions against Iran to resolve the looming crisis. Their message seemed as much aimed at Israel as the Iranians.
"None of us want Iran to have nuclear weapons. [But] I don't think it would be a wise thing at this moment ... for Israel to launch a military attack on Iran," Hague told the BBC. "I think Israel like everyone else in the world should be giving a real chance to the approach we've adopted of very serious economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure and the readiness to negotiate with Iran."
Across the Atlantic, Dempsey suggested that Iran could still be dissuaded from pursuing nuclear weapons. "We think the current path we're on is the most prudent path at this point," the general said on the CNN program "Fareed Zakaria GPS."
The Joint Chiefs chairman voiced concern that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure could prompt Tehran to retaliate against U.S. targets in the Persian Gulf or Afghanistan, where the U.S.-led war against the Taliban continues.
An Israeli attack could set back Iran's nuclear program "probably for a couple of years," Dempsey acknowledged, echoing testimony given to a Senate committee last week by James R. Clapper, director of National Intelligence. But Dempsey made it clear that U.S. policymakers considered such a move "destabilizing."
In the interview, Dempsey described Iran as "a rational actor" — in contrast to the nation frequently depicted in the West as a fanatical regime that, once armed with a nuclear weapon, would not hesitate to use it on Israel, however irrational such an act might appear. Experts agree that any such Iranian attack would trigger a devastating response from Israel, which is widely believed to have an extensive nuclear arsenal.
In Tehran, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi also opted for conciliatory words Sunday, declaring that the incendiary dispute could be defused through negotiations.
"We are seeking to find a way out of Iran's nuclear issue in such a way that it would be 'win-win,'" Salehi was quoted as saying by Iran's Mehr news agency. "We understand the other side's situation and are aware that the other side is seeking ... to come out of the issue honorably."
Iran has agreed to a new round of talks on the issue with the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
Nonetheless, Iran said Sunday that it was cutting off oil supplies to France and Britain in retaliation for a coming European Union oil embargo that is part of the punishing new series of sanctions linked to the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
The Iranians insisted that they will have no problem finding alternative clients for their crude.
"We have our own customers and replaced British and French companies with other firms," said Oil Ministry spokesman Alireza-Nikzad Rahbar, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
The EU has announced a ban on purchases of Iranian oil as of July 1. The date was put off until the summer to minimize the impact on European nations, especially Greece, Italy and Spain, that have ailing economies. Published reports indicate that French and British suppliers had already reduced purchases of Iranian oil and had begun lining up alternative sources, suggesting that the Iranian cutoff could have a largely symbolic effect.
Why Iran decided to cut sales only to Britain and France and not impose a European Union-wide ban remained unclear.
Saudi Arabia, the world's No. 2 oil producer and a bitter regional rival of Iran, has offered to supply additional oil to the market.
Though oil is Iran's major source of income, the Oil Ministry says sales to the EU amount to only 18% of crude exports. Other major markets include China and India.
On Monday, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. watchdog, are scheduled to arrive in Tehran for another series of talks with Iranian officials.
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Times staff writers Melanie Mason in Washington and Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.