The warnings issued by Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, also follow a suggestion last month by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney that Israel could launch preemptive strikes against Iran's nuclear-enrichment facilities if it feels threatened by them. Israel, thought to be the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, has not said it will attack.
Rohani told Reuters yesterday that Tehran will "definitely have greater motivation" to accelerate the enrichment of nuclear material if Iran is attacked by the United States or Israel.
"I do not think America itself will take such a risk because America knows very well that we will strongly answer such an attack," Rohani said. "The Americans are very well aware of our capabilities. They know our capabilities for retaliating against such attacks."
Cheney said yesterday that the United States backs a diplomatic effort by the "EU Three" (Britain, France, Germany) aimed at persuading Iran to abandon nuclear enrichment. But Cheney said that Washington is not ruling out a military option in the future or other alternatives to diplomacy.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a weeklong tour of Europe and the Middle East, has been communicating the same message to leaders in those regions.
Speaking in a widely quoted BBC interview that aired yesterday, Rice said the United States remains focused on diplomatic efforts with Iran.
"We believe that this is a time for diplomacy," Rice said. "This is a time to muster our considerable influence -- we the alliance -- our considerable influence, our considerable 'soft power' if you will, to bring great changes in the world."
Analysts say Washington still appears to be far from making a decision on military strikes. That's because the European diplomatic initiative is still under way with negotiations scheduled to start in Geneva tomorrow.
European diplomats in Vienna say they want Iran to suspend all uranium-enrichment programs -- even those for peaceful use of nuclear energy -- as a guarantee that Tehran is not seeking nuclear weapons.
"The diplomacy that is going on at the moment from the European Union -- particularly from the United Kingdom, France, Germany -- is to persuade the Iranians that this is not in their interest," said Alex Standish, editor of the London-based "Jane's Intelligence Digest." And that it makes them a potential target, possibly, for an attack in the future, even if it is not currently on the agenda, from either Israel or the United States."
On the other hand, Standish concludes that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the diplomacy over North Korea's nuclear programs have convinced many Iranian officials that the only way to thwart military strikes by Israel or the United States is to become a nuclear-capable country as soon as possible.
U.S. officials and independent experts say that at the current rate Iran probably will not be able to produce a nuclear weapon for at least another three years.
Remi Leveau, a professor emeritus at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, noted that the United States has so far refused to be involved in direct negotiations with authorities from Iran's conservative Islamist regime.
"Obviously, Iran wants to discuss [these issues] seriously [and] directly with the United States," Leveau said. "If there is no direct involvement of the United States in terms of recognition [of Iran and the] prospects of a common vision on the future of the Middle East -- and especially in relationship with Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- the Iranians will just keep talking with the Europeans. But, I think, without really wanting to come to a significant agreement."
In his interview yesterday, Rohani called for "equal negotiations" between Iran and the United States, saying that agreement could be reached with Washington if talks are conducted "as two equal countries with equal rights."
Rohani also suggested that any breakdown in its talks later this week in Geneva will be the result of U.S. pressure on the EU diplomats.
"Basically, America and Europe, regarding Iran's nuclear issue, have some common aims and some united views," Rohani said. "In regard to some other goals, they have different views and think differently. Since the beginning, the Europeans have adopted a policy based on talks and negotiations with Iran. The basis for America's dealing with Iran was threats. But at the same time, we are in talks with the Europeans. And we hope the Americans, by pressuring the Europeans, are not going to destroy the talks and cause their failure."
In Tehran today, Iranian Vice President and head of the country's Atomic Energy Organization Gholamreza Aghazadeh told Iranian state television that the negotiations with British, French, and German diplomats will enter a crucial phase when they begin on tomorrow.
Aghazadeh said the conclusion of three months of nuclear negotiations is close. But he said European negotiators need to be more clear about their plans.