NEW YORK Iran's top diplomat predicted Wednesday that the United States and Israel would not risk the "craziness" of attacking his country and possibly provoking a wider Middle East war or driving oil prices into uncharted heights.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in an interview with The Associated Press that he does not believe a military strike is looming while the U.S. economy is suffering and it is bogged down in a 7-year-old campaign in Afghanistan and more than five years in Iraq.
His remarks come amid mounting speculation that Israel may be considering a unilateral strike on Iran's nuclear facilities a contingency that could upend already volatile oil markets.
"We do not foresee such a possibility at the moment. The Israeli government is facing a political breakdown within itself and within the region, so we do not foresee such a possibility for that regime to resort to such craziness," Mottaki said through his translator. "The United States, too, is not in a position where it can engage in, take another risk in the region.
"Of course, there are people in the United States who are interested in that. But we think that the rational thinkers in the United States will prevent from that action being taken, and will prevent the imposition of another adventuresome act that would put pressure on the American taxpayers."
President Bush and others in Washington made it clear Wednesday that all options are on the table with regard to Iran and its nuclear program, but a military strike would not be Bush's first choice in the waning months of his presidency.
There have been growing worries that the conflict between Iran and the West over the nuclear issue could broaden into a more violent conflict, particularly if Israel tried to attack Iran's nuclear facilities in Natanz. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia as well as Germany have offered new talks if Iran signals it is prepared to suspend its enrichment of uranium.
Although Iran prefers the diplomatic route, Mottaki said, he pointedly did not rule out trying to restrict oil traffic in the strategic Strait of Hormuz if Iran was attacked.
"In Iran, we must defend our national security, our country and our revolutionary system and we will continue to do so," he said. If his country was ever targeted militarily, he added, "politicians must step aside a bit and allow the military to make decisions."
But in the interview, conducted at AP's world headquarters in New York, Mottaki also signaled that a dialogue remains open to resolve the impasse and indicated Iran is seriously considering the offer of new talks. "We see and have observed some improvement in the U.S. position," he said.
He was not the only one apparently seeking to defuse tensions Wednesday.
"I have made it very clear to all parties that the first option ought to be solve this problem diplomatically," Bush said. "And the best way to solve it diplomatically is for the United States to work with other nations to send a focused message and that is, you will be isolated, and you will have economic hardship if you continue to enrich."
At a Defense Department news conference, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be a high-risk move that could destabilize the Middle East.
Mullen would not say, however, what Israeli leaders told him during meetings last week about any intentions to strike Iran. "This is a very unstable part of the world and I don't need it to be more unstable," he said. "Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us."
He said that Iran would not have the ability to sustain a blockade of ship traffic in the Strait of Hormuz.
Mottaki, who was in New York for talks at the United Nations, hinted there has been diplomatic progress on easing tensions with the West. He struck a conciliatory tone toward the United States and said he sees improvements in the U.S. tone recently as well as in some recent diplomatic offerings to Iran.
But his visit also comes on the heels of a report by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker that the United States has stepped up covert action intended to destabilize Iran's religious leadership. Mottaki described it as one of a series of such U.S. operations in Iran.
"We've become familiarized in the past 30 years with this approach by the United States," he said. "The United States has almost depleted all possible means it had in this direction."
In the interview, Mottaki denied U.S. claims that Iran helps arm and train Shiite militias in Iraq. "We are for stability in Iraq ... within a democratic system and framework that brings all who wish to operate within that framework together," he said.
Last month, the U.S. and its partners offered a package to Iran that included assistance for its civil nuclear program and development aid in exchange for an agreement by Iran to end nuclear enrichment. Iran claims that program is for peaceful purposes; Western powers say they suspect its true aim is to develop nuclear weapons.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, presented the package on behalf of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany.
Mottaki said Iran was still examining the proposal and would respond shortly. Alluding to news reports that Iran's answer would come in two weeks, he added: "Maybe even sooner."
He also praised as "very constructive" Solana's response to Iran's proposals on the subject. Mottaki said he saw "significant capacities" being explored in the latest round of talks that were not present earlier.
He also blamed the recent rise in oil prices globally in part on political tensions in the Middle East.
In Madrid on Wednesday, Iranian Oil Minister Gholam Hossein Nozari warned that an attack on his country would provoke a fierce response "that nobody can imagine." Nozari said, however, that Tehran would not cut oil deliveries and would continue supplying the market even if struck by Israel or the United States.
Mottaki said he believes Iran is misunderstood and misrepresented, and again denied any ambition by Tehran for nuclear weapons. He also held out the possibility of discussions toward allowing a U.S. diplomatic office to open in Iran and on permitting direct flights between Iran and the United States.