A diplomatic source in Washington told The Times, “It is difficult to imagine Bush and Cheney leaving office without resolving the Iranian issue, if necessary, by force.”
The Guardian reported on Wednesday that senior European policy-makers were increasingly worried that the US administration will resort to air strikes against Iran to try to destroy its suspect nuclear program.
As transatlantic friction over how to deal with the Iranian impasse intensifies, there are fears in European capitals that the nuclear crisis could come to a head this year because of US frustration with Russian stalling tactics at the UN Security Council.
"The clock is ticking," one European official told The Guardian. "Military action has come back on to the table more seriously than before. The language in the US has changed."
The US recently began boosting its military presence in the Persian Gulf – the most serious reinforcement of forces since the US invaded Iraq in 2003.
Meanwhile, the US also raised some complaints against its European allies. Washington is urging its allies to go beyond UN sanctions against Iran over its atomic program and choke off foreign investment, but is meeting strong Russian and European resistance, Western diplomats said.
"A number of countries, especially Russia, feel the United States is bullying them to end even legitimate business with Iran due to the nuclear dispute," a senior Western official told Reuters.
US wants punitive measures
The UN Security Council passed a resolution in December imposing limited sanctions on Iran for refusing to suspend its nuclear enrichment program, which Western states fear will be used for atomic bombs. Iran says its program is peaceful.
But Washington is trying to get its allies to adopt punitive measures beyond the UN sanctions.
US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said this month European governments should curtail billions of euros of export credits available for trade with Iran. He also criticized arms deals Russia and China have with Tehran.
"The US goal is to make it virtually impossible to invest in Iran. It's not about stopping sales of dual-use technology. They're trying to keep investors out of Iran and are working hard to keep the price of oil low," said a European diplomat.
"They (the US) think that this is what will hurt Iran most and I think they're right," he added.
A diplomat from an EU country that is also in the Group of Eight (G8) club of developed states said Iranian sanctions were discussed at a meeting of G8 officials in Berlin last week.
He said Russian officials had complained at the Berlin meeting that the sanctions were hurting them more than any other country because of their close business ties with Iran.
"The exposure of Russian banks in New York is enormous," said the EU diplomat. "They can't ignore the US pressure (not to deal with Iran) and Moscow doesn't like it."
Some large EU countries with major trade relations with Iran like Germany and Italy are resisting US pressure. Washington wants allies to end all business with Iran by preventing financial transactions and freezing assets of certain Iranians and Iranian companies.
"US treasury department officials have been touring Europe to make sure officials and companies know that they've got to put more pressure on Iran," another EU diplomat said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in Brussels he was optimistic the sanctions resolution "is going to be implemented to the fullest by EU member countries."
"In the last (EU) General Affairs Council, we had an agreement to look at how the sanctions can be continued to other people, to companies," he said.
Still, Washington remains frustrated with what it sees as the slow place of the EU in implementing measures that could pressure the Iranian government, a US official said.
Reuters contributed to the report