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TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - A military strike on Iran could have the unintended consequence of stirring nationalist sentiment to the benefit of Tehran's hard-line government, U.S. General David Petraeus told Reuters.
Iran's June election gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term but sparked the worst internal crisis in the Islamic Republic's history, putting internal pressure on a government already facing the threat of more sanctions over its nuclear program.
"It's possible (a strike) could be used to play to nationalist tendencies," Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command region, which includes Iran, said in an interview this week.
"There is certainly a history, in other countries, of fairly autocratic regimes almost creating incidents that inflame nationalist sentiment. So that could be among the many different, second, third, or even fourth order effects (of a strike)."
Tensions over Iran's nuclear program have set off speculation that Israel could make good on veiled threats to hit its arch-foe pre-emptively. But Israel's envoy to Washington said in December the U.S.-Israeli dialogue on Iran has not reached the point of discussing the military option.
U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have warned that any strike on Iran would not stop the Islamic Republic from pursuing nuclear weapons. Instead, it would only delay Tehran, an opinion Petraeus said he shared.
Dennis Blair, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Congress on Tuesday that Iran was keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons but that it remained unclear whether Tehran had the political will to do so.
Petraeus, commenting on advances of Iran's nuclear program, said: "On the one hand, there is no question that there has been a continuation of various aspects of the nuclear program but I'm not sure it has always proceeded as rapidly as has been projected at various times."
Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday Iran was ready to send its enriched uranium abroad in exchange for nuclear fuel under a plan the West hopes will stop the material from being used for atomic bombs.
The same day, Iran also said it would soon hang nine more rioters over unrest that erupted after the June presidential vote, which protesters said was rigged.
Petraeus cautioned that the "big winner" of the election had been Iran's security apparatus, expanding the influence the Revolutionary Guards Corps, including its elite Qods force.
"It's gone from I think a theocracy that had democratic elements in a narrow spectrum ... to a government that is the result of a hijacked election and a regime that is kept in power by security services to a vastly greater extent than has ever been the case before," he said.
Asked how this changed prospects diplomatically, Petraeus said: "I don't think it simplifies the situation for those who are trying to pursue diplomacy if the role of the Foreign Ministry is diminished further and the role of the Qods force has been augmented."
To counter the Iranian threat and reassure anxious Gulf allies, the United States has expanded land- and sea-based missile defense systems in and around the Gulf.
Petraeus stressed it had been a gradual build-up -- an approach shared by both the Obama and Bush administrations -- and not something sparked by events in Iran in recent months.
"This has been built up over years of inflammatory Iranian rhetoric, alarming Iranian activities and Iranian provision of arms, money, training, explosives and direction in some cases to a variety of different extremist elements," Petraeus said.
Iran has accused the United States of seeking to stoke "Iran phobia" in the Middle East by deploying the missile defense systems in the Gulf.
The United States and major European allies are pursuing broader U.N. sanctions against Iran due to its disputed nuclear activity. The United States, Britain, Germany and France have called for a fourth round of U.N. measures against Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment activities as demanded by five Security Council resolutions.
Editing by Bill Trott