- - Sunday, January 15, 2012

The top U.S. military commander is scheduled for talks in Israel this week, Israel said Sunday, at a time when the U.S. is concerned that Israel might be preparing to attack Iran over its nuclear program.

The Israeli Defense Ministry confirmed Thursday’s planned visit by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It did not give his agenda for talks with Israelis, but Iran is expected to be at the top.

Israeli public radio reported Sunday that Israel and the U.S. have agreed to postpone a massive military exercise scheduled for the spring. Code-named “Austere Challenge 12,” the exercise will be pushed back to the end of 2012 because of budgetary concerns, military sources said.

An Israeli Defense Ministry source said the delay had not been finalized as “discussions with our American counterparts are ongoing.” But Israel’s army radio, citing a defense official, said the drill was being postponed to avoid “unnecessary headlines in such a tense period.”

The joint exercise was to have been the biggest yet between the two allies, and was seen as an opportunity to display their joint military strength amid concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat because of its nuclear program, missile capabilities, support for anti-Israel militants in Lebanon and Gaza, and frequent references by its president to the destruction of Israel.

Israel repeatedly has hinted it might take military action if international sanctions fail to stop Iran’s nuclear development.

The U.S., Israel and other Western nations believe Iran is developing atomic weapons. Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Meanwhile, Iran warned Gulf Arab oil producers against boosting production to offset any potential drop in Tehran’s crude exports in the event of an embargo affecting its oil sales.

The comments by Iran’s OPEC governor, published Sunday, came as Saudi Arabia’s oil minister was quoted the same day denying that his country’s earlier pledges to boost output as needed to meet global demand was linked to a potential siphoning of Iranian crude from the market because of sanctions.

World oil markets have been jolted over concerns that Iran may choke off the vital Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for sanctions hampering its ability to sell its oil. Saudi Arabia and other key Gulf Arab producers recently have said they are ready to provide stable and secure supplies of oil.

Iran’s official news agency IRNA said Sunday the U.S. has relayed a message to Iran about security in the Strait of Hormuz. It gave no details, and there was no immediate comment from Washington.

The U.S. recently imposed sanctions targeting Iran’s central bank and, by extension, refiners’ ability to buy and pay for crude. Japan, one of Iran’s top Asian customers, has pledged to buy less crude from the country.

Britain’s foreign secretary said Sunday he believes the European Union would agree to tough new sanctions later this month, and would continue to look for peaceful methods of persuading Iran to ditch its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

“We are advocating meaningful negotiations, if Iran will enter into them, and the increasing pressure of sanctions to try to get some flexibility from Iran,” William Hague told Sky News television.

European officials have worked for several months on banning the purchase of Iranian oil, and are expected to agree to the measures at a meeting of foreign ministers on Jan. 23.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the new sanctions would help to choke off funding to Iran’s nuclear program.

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