WASHINGTON - National Security Adviser James Jones said Friday that the US and Israel have a very close working relationship regarding Iran's nuclear program and called his Israeli interlocutors "very responsible" in their approach.
"We have very good dialogue with Israel, continual dialogue," he told The Jerusalem Post. "We're working very closely with them."
When asked by the Post whether the US is concerned that Israel might get out too far ahead of America on Iran and act unilaterally, Jones responded, "Our Israeli partners are very responsible."
Some media reports have indicated the US has used the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities to spur other countries to back stronger action against the Islamic Republic as it looks to impose more sanctions.
Jones visited Israel and several Arab countries earlier in the month, and noted that all the governments he heard from were concerned about Iran.
He spoke to the Post following an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
During that address, he said that the administration does intend to "dramatically increase pressure" on Iran in concert with allied countries, since it has not accepted the American diplomatic overtures.
He warned, however, that as the regime in Teheran begins to feel this external pressure, coupled with the internal pressure of its domestic reformist movement, it is likely to "lash out" at Israel through its surrogates Hamas and Hizbullah.
"As pressure on the regime in Teheran builds over its nuclear program, there is a heightened risk of further attacks against Israel or with efforts to promote renewed violence in the West Bank," Jones said, arguing that this makes restarting peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians that much more urgent, "to show that progress cannot be derailed or denied."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also referred to pressure on Israel while talking to reporters in Paris on Friday.
"It will produce an arms race," she said, explaining what she had told Chinese leaders. "Israel will feel an existential threat. All of that is incredibly dangerous."
The New York Times, quoting US administration and military officials, reported Saturday that the Obama administration is accelerating the deployment of new defenses against possible Iranian missile attacks in the Persian Gulf, placing special ships off the Iranian coast and anti-missile systems in at least four Arab countries
The developments came the day after the US Senate passed landmark Iran sanctions legislation, a major step forward in a multi-year congressional quest to ratchet up the pressure on Teheran.
The measure aims to bar foreign firms from doing business with Iran's energy sector, by cutting off their access to the US market and American loans or other financial assistance.
The Senate's unanimous voice vote follows the passage last month of its own measure by the US House of Representatives, and the two versions will need to be reconciled before being sent to the president for his signature.
Though the White House has been sending signals it is increasingly focused on sanctions rather than on diplomacy with Iran, it has had reservations with the sanctions legislation. In particular, it has been concerned that unilateral US punishment of foreign companies will alienate international partners, particularly in Europe, with whom it hopes to achieve a multilateral sanctions regime.
The US is looking to get another UN Security Council sanctions resolution, with the process expected to begin in earnest once France takes over the leadership of the council on Monday, and there are signs the administration is less than thrilled with the prospect of the legislation throwing a wrench in that undertaking.
In reaction to the bill's passage in the Senate, an administration official told the Post Friday, "We are working with Congress to improve the bill to increase the flexibility necessary for the president to conduct foreign policy."
There is some chance the administration's desired changes, including an exemption that could be granted to allies who are cooperating with the US on imposing sanctions and dropping a reporting requirement many equate with a blacklist, could be made during the process of reconciling the House and Senate versions, but it is seen as unlikely.
There's also some chance that process would be slowed down enough to give the Security Council some time to get a resolution through.
Still, Thursday's vote came as a surprise to many on both sides of the issue and involved a procedure that didn't allow for floor debate, speeding up the voting process. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who arranged for the Thursday night vote, said that "there will be a vote when this matter comes back from conference, and I am committed to getting it back just as quickly as we can."
Several members of Congress have been pushing Iran sanctions legislation for years but have failed to get it through both houses. Though its final passage is still far from certain, many pro-Israel groups hailed Thursday's vote.
"Iran's possession of a nuclear weapons capability would be a devastating blow to America's national security interests," the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement. "The US and our allies must impose biting diplomatic and economic pressure to try and peaceably prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and avoid confronting more distressing alternatives."
"We're thrilled," said The Israel Project's Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who noted the tremendous cross-party support for the measure during an otherwise "toxic" period of partisanship in Washington. "It gives me great hope that the next stages of this battle will be successful, but there's a lot of stages to go," she said.
But not all Jewish groups were pleased. Americans for Peace Now, which has called for more limited sanctions directed specifically at the regime, criticized Thursday's vote.
"We have argued from the start that this is bad legislation and the Obama administration has made clear that it agrees," APN President and CEO Debra DeLee said in a statement on the measure. "It will hurt the Iranian public while having virtually no impact on the Iranian regime. Moreover, given the very dynamic political situation inside Iran, this legislation sends precisely the wrong message: that Americans are ready to inflict misery on the Iranian people in a desperate effort to pressure their government. This does not help pro-democracy forces."