MOSCOW, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Russia fears Israel will push the United States into a military conflict with Iran which could retaliate by blocking oil shipments from the Gulf, a confidant of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said.
"There is a likelihood of military escalation of the conflict, towards which Israel is pushing the Americans," Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Kremlin’s Security Council, told Interfax news agency.
Patrushev, a former head of the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said Tehran could respond by blocking the Strait of Hormuz between Oman and Iran, through which 35 percent of the world’s seaborne traded oil passes.
"It cannot be ruled out that the Iranians will be able to carry out their threat to shut exports of Saudi oil through the Strait of Hormuz if faced with military actions against them," Patrushev said in an interview published on Thursday.
Tension over Iranian uranium enrichment, which has moved to a mountain bunker better protected from possible air strikes, has raised fears for world oil supplies and even of war.
Iran says its nuclear programme is peaceful while Western powers believe it has military aims. Israel, which sees an Iranian atom bomb as a threat to its existence, is willing to attack Iranian nuclear sites with or without U.S. backing.
However, Patrushev said there was still no proof that Iran was on the brink of creating nuclear weapons.
"Talk about Iran creating an atomic bomb by next week we have heard for many years," he said, adding that the United States was trying to topple the Iran’s leadership using "all available means" to make the country into "a loyal partner".
Russia, the world’s biggest energy producer, opposes further U.N. Security Council sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear programme and has sharply criticised U.S. and European Union sanctions.
The United States has said it would use force if Iran carried out its threat to block the strait and moved a new aircraft carrier strike group to the Arabian Sea this week.
FOUR MORE YEARS FOR OBAMA?
In remarks clearly aimed at signalling Russian foreign policy after presidential elections in March, Patrushev said Putin would work well with President Barack Obama if he is re-elected when the United States votes later this year.
Patrushev said Obama’s chances in the November election were good despite the United States’ problems. "With all the difficulties faced by the Democratic administration, President Obama has a good chance of keeping his post," Patrushev said.
Putin himself is almost certain to return to the Russian presidency, something which diplomats see as a setback for Obama’s policy of improving relations with Moscow.
But Patrushev said Putin, who is known for his anti-American rhetoric, would work well with Obama.
"In the case of Vladimir Putin and then Barack Obama coming to power, the Russian-U.S. relationship, as well as the situation in the world as a whole, may see a strengthening trend," Patrushev said.
Patrushev, a hardliner, said U.S. plans to build a missile defence shield, a source of tension between the two former Cold War foes, did not "pose a serious threat today", although it could weaken Russia’s "strategic potential" in the future.