WASHINGTON/TEHRAN (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Sunday there were important risks to consider before any military strike against Iran and made clear he does not want to see more conflict in the oil-producing Gulf region.
In a television interview, Obama also said he did not believe Tehran had the “intentions or capabilities” to attack the United States, playing down the threats from Tehran and saying he wanted a diplomatic end to the nuclear standoff.
“Any kind of additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us. It could have a big effect on oil prices. We’ve still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran. And so our preferred solution here is diplomatic,” Obama said.
His comments echoed concerns expressed by earlier by Iran’s neighbor Turkey that an attack on Iran would be disastrous.
Obama, who is up for re-election in November, has ended the U.S. war in Iraq and is winding down combat in Afghanistan amid growing public discontent about American war spending at a time when the economy remains shaky.
He said Israel had not yet decided what to do in response to the escalating tension but was “rightly” concerned about Tehran’s plans.
“My number one priority continues to be the security of the United States, but also the security of Israel, and we are going to make sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this, hopefully diplomatically,” he told NBC.
Iranian leaders have responded sharply to speculation that Israel could bomb Iran within months to stop it from assembling nuclear weapons, threatening to retaliate against any country that launches an attack against the Islamic Republic.
Iran says its nuclear program is meant to produce energy, not weapons.
But its recent shift of uranium enrichment to a mountain bunker - possibly impervious to conventional bombing - and refusal to negotiate peaceful guarantees for the program or open up to U.N. inspectors have raised fears about Iran’s ambitions as well as concerns about Gulf oil supplies.
Although tough sanctions from the United States and Europe have begun to inflict economic pain in Iran, its oil minister asserted on Saturday it would make no nuclear retreat even if its energy exports ground to a halt.
Betraying nervousness about the possibility of a military strike on Iran, two of its neighbors - Qatar and Turkey - urged Western powers on Sunday to make greater efforts to negotiate a solution to the nuclear dispute.
Speaking at a security conference in Munich, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said an attack would be a disaster and suggested the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program could be ended very rapidly.
“If there is strong political will and mutual confidence being established, this issue could be resolved in a few days,” he said. “The technical disputes are not so big. The problem is mutual confidence and strong political will.”
He added: “A military option will create a disaster in our region. So before that disaster, everybody must be serious in negotiations. We hope soon both sides will meet again but this time there will be a complete result.”
Qatari Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Mohamed al-Attiyah said an attack “is not a solution.”
“I believe that with our allies and friends in the West we should open a serious dialogue with the Iranians to get out of this dilemma. This is what we feel in our region,” he said.
Turkey hosted talks between Western powers and Iran a year ago that ended in stalemate because the participants could not agree on an agenda.
Despite Obama’s stated preference for a diplomatic solution, he said from the White House on Sunday he would not take options off the table to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
“We’re going to do everything we can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and creating an arms race - a nuclear arms race - in a volatile region,” he said in the interview.
Any military strike on Iran, which might include an attack on the oilfields of No. 1 exporter Saudi Arabia, could send oil prices soaring, which could seriously harm the global economy.
Tehran has warned its response to any such strike would be “painful,” threatening to target Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf, and warning it may close the Strait of Hormuz used by one third of the world’s seaborne oil traffic.
The elite Revolutionary Guards began two days of military maneuvers in southern Iran on Saturday in a show of force for Iran’s adversaries. On Sunday, the deputy of that unit said Iran was ready to attack any country whose territory is used by “enemies” to launch a military strike against it.
“Any spot used by the enemy for hostile operations against Iran will be subjected to retaliatory aggression by our armed forces,” Hossein Salami told the semi-official Fars news agency. The Gulf states that host U.S. military facilities are Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.
Experts currently estimate the longest range of an Iranian missile to be 1,500 miles, capable of reaching Israel and Europe. Las week, Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said Iran had been working on a missile that could strike the United States, with a range of 6,000 miles.
Asked about that risk, Obama said there was little sign of a pending Iranian attack on U.S. soil. “We don’t see any evidence they have those intentions or capabilities right now,” he said.
Additional reporting by William Maclean in Munich, Michael Holden in London and Aruna Viswanatha in Washington; Writing by Laura MacInnis; Editing by Doina Chiacu