By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008
The nation's top military officer said yesterday that the Pentagon is planning for "potential military courses of action" as one of several options against Iran, criticizing what he called the Tehran government's "increasingly lethal and malign influence" in Iraq.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a conflict with Iran would be "extremely stressing" but not impossible for U.S. forces, pointing to reserve capabilities in the Navy and Air Force.
"It would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capability," he said at a Pentagon news conference. Speaking of Iran's intentions, Mullen said: "They prefer to see a weak Iraq neighbor. . . . They have expressed long-term goals to be the regional power."
Mullen made clear that he prefers a diplomatic solution and does not expect imminent action. "I have no expectations that we're going to get into a conflict with Iran in the immediate future," he said.
Mullen's statements and others by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently signal new rhetorical pressure on Iran by the Bush administration amid what officials say is increased Iranian provision of weapons, training and financing to Iraqi groups that are attacking and killing Americans.
In a speech Monday, Gates said Iran "is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons." He said war would be "disastrous" but added that "the military option must be kept on the table, given the destabilizing policies of the regime and the risks inherent in a future Iranian nuclear threat."
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who was nominated this week to head all U.S. forces in the Middle East, is preparing a briefing soon on increased Iranian involvement in Iraq, Mullen said. The briefing will detail, for example, the discovery in Iraq of weapons that were very recently manufactured in Iran, he said.
"The Iranian government pledged to halt such activities some months ago. It's plainly obvious they have not," Mullen said. He said unrest in the Iraqi city of Basra had highlighted a "level of involvement" by Iran that had not been clear previously.
But while Mullen and Gates have said that the government in Tehran must know of Iranian actions in Iraq, Mullen said he has "no smoking gun which could prove that the highest leadership is involved."
In an incident early local time Thursday, a cargo ship contracted by the U.S. military fired "several bursts" of warning shots at two fast boats that approached in international waters off the Iranian coast, defense officials said yesterday.
The unidentified small boats approached the Westward Venture, a ship carrying U.S. military hardware, as it headed north through the central Persian Gulf, said Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the Navy's 5th Fleet.
The U.S. ship initiated communications, and after receiving no response, it fired a flare. The speedboats continued to approach, so the ship fired warning shots. The boats then left the area, Robertson said.
In January, five Iranian patrol boats sped toward a U.S. warship in the Gulf and dropped small, boxlike objects in the water, an incident that President Bush called "a provocative act." The objects turned out to pose no threat to U.S. vessels.