By Ann Scott Tyson and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 31, 2007; A11
Iran is positioning its military to deny U.S. access to the Persian Gulf while acting as a "destabilizing" influence in the region, President Bush's nominee to command U.S. forces in the Middle East told the Senate yesterday. Adm. William J. Fallon said he favors using what one senator called "battleship diplomacy" to deter Iran.
"Iranian support for terrorism and sectarian violence beyond its borders, and its pursuit of nuclear capability, is destabilizing and troubling," Fallon said in an opening statement at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He warned specifically that Iranian activity "has not been helpful" in Iraq, where he said "time is running out" for action to curb the escalation of violence.
Fallon, 62, is the first Navy admiral to be named to head Central Command (Centcom), which oversees U.S. military forces in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa. Military officials say he was chosen because of his diplomatic and strategic skills at a time when the United States has dispatched two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Gulf for the first time since 2003.
"The reality is, if you look at the Centcom area of responsibility, there's a lot of water there," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters Friday, when asked why he recommended Fallon. "And as you look at the range of options available to the United States, the use of naval and air power, potentially, it made sense to me for all those reasons for Admiral Fallon to have the job."
Fallon said Iran's increasing military capabilities were focused on blocking U.S. military operations. "Based on my read of their military hardware acquisitions and development of tactics . . . they are posturing themselves with the capability to attempt to deny us the ability to operate in this vicinity," he said.
"As they grow their military capabilities, we're going to have to pay close attention to what they do and what they may bring to the table."
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), while calling the use of military force against Iran "the very last resort," suggested that the United States use its Navy to conduct "battleship diplomacy" and create a "ring of deterrence" around Iran. He also suggested that European nations "send a ship or two to also add to the strength of the signal we're trying to send to that country, that we're not going to permit them to go forward with nuclear power."
"Does that have any interest or appeal to you, that concept?" Warner asked Fallon.
"Senator, the whole idea is most appealing," Fallon replied, "because we've got plenty to do right now with active combat operations ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it's clear to me that to date, the Iranians have not been playing a constructive role in addressing any of these, and in fact are challenging us in other areas."
Still, donning his diplomatic hat, Fallon said Iran would stand to suffer from any interruption of commerce in the Gulf. "This is not a one-sided game or a one-sided situation," he said. "Iran is, I believe, critically dependent on its exports of petroleum products for its economic vitality, and those exports, of course, go through the same Strait of Hormuz that they would potentially seek to deny us access to."
John D. Negroponte, the outgoing national intelligence director, also remarked yesterday on Iran's rising assertiveness at his separate confirmation hearing to be deputy secretary of state.
"Iran has been emboldened in its behavior during the past couple of years and has played a more assertive role," Negroponte said. He said that although the United States seeks to resolve issues with Iran peacefully, "we don't believe that their behavior, such as supporting Shia extremists in Iraq, should go unchallenged. So it's a balance, if you will, but if they feel that they can continue with this kind of activity with impunity, that will be harmful to the security of Iraq and to our interests in that country."
Turning to Iraq, Fallon said he is "not a particularly patient man" and urged Iraq's government to demonstrate its commitment to reducing violence in the country, without which Fallon said U.S. military operations will not succeed.
"We've got to see some action. We've got to get some results," he said.
"If there's no progress, then I don't believe we're going to be successful in the military actions. There's got to be a commensurate movement forward in political background that's going to give these people the confidence that they can actually effectively move forward as a country," Fallon said.
But pressed by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, to hold the Iraqi leaders accountable to meeting benchmarks, Fallon said he believed that imposing "edicts" or "deadlines" would be unconstructive. He also suggested a need to lower American expectations for Iraq, indicating that U.S. goals for Iraq following the 2003 invasion were unrealistically ambitious.
"We probably erred in our assessment of the ability of these people to take on all of these tasks at the same time," he said. "Maybe we ought to redefine the goals here a bit and do something that's more realistic in terms of getting some progress and then maybe take on the other things later," he said.
Democracy, for example, will not come quickly to Iraq, he said. "I think that we would probably be wise to temper our expectations here, that the likelihood that Iraq is suddenly going to turn into something that looks close to what we enjoy here in this country is going to be a long time coming."