WASHINGTON - The words Wednesday from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were notable for their blunt pragmatism: An Israeli airstrike on Iran would be high-risk and could further destabilize the region, leading to political and economic chaos.
On Iran's western border, the U.S. military is more than five years into a war in Iraq that has taken 4,113 American lives and cost U.S. taxpayers more than $600 billion. And on Iran's eastern border, American commanders are now openly questioning whether they have lost their way in the fight against a resurgent Taliban.
Israel, the United States' closest ally in the Middle East, has refused to rule out a strike against Iranian nuclear sites, and this week's New Yorker magazine reported that the U.S. has stepped up its covert operations inside Iran.
While President George W. Bush repeated Wednesday that a military strike remains an option, Mullen's words of caution underscored the Pentagon's belief that a move against Iran-by the U.S. or one of its allies-would have an undeniable effect on the ongoing U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us," Mullen acknowledged during a Pentagon news conference. He added moments later, "This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don't need it to be more unstable."
The White House, Israel and Western powers say Iran continues to work toward producing nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is intended only for generating electricity. This week, Iran's foreign minister struck a conciliatory tone when speaking to reporters about the possibility of Tehran agreeing to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
Deaths in Afghanistan up
Mullen's comments come in the wake of the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the 7-year-old war, with 27 American service members killed in June. About 32,000 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan, compared with 144,000 in Iraq.
Mullen said the possibility of sending more U.S. forces to Afghanistan hinges on the security situation improving in Iraq. Only then, he said, could a stretched U.S. military shift more troops to Afghanistan.
"We're on an increasingly positive path in Iraq in lots of dimensions," Mullen said. "And so I'm hopeful toward the end of this year, opportunities like that would be created."
A potential airstrike against Iran is further complicated by a rapidly changing political scene in Washington, Jerusalem and Tehran. The Bush administration has less than seven months remaining in office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is embroiled in a bribery scandal and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has lost clout among Iran's influential clerics.
There also has been much hand-wringing among Sunni Arab leaders about Iran's influence over a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. And the U.S. military has charged that Iran is responsible for arming Shiite militias that have killed hundreds of U.S. service members in Iraq.
An Israeli airstrike on its nuclear reactor sites might not be as damaging for Iran as it would be to the United States and Israel, said Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University.
"The upside could be a political bonanza for Iran," Nasr said. "Just as Hezbollah became so popular [in the aftermath of the war between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006], Iran could gain credibility in the Arab street."
No surprise for Israel
The ratcheting up of tensions between Iran and Israel echoes Israel's 1981 bombing of an Iraqi plant near Baghdad that was designed to make nuclear weapons. But in this standoff, Israel does not have the element of surprise, and some military experts said that Israel's potential desire to launch an airstrike is muddied by the U.S. presence in Iraq.
P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel who was a special assistant to President Bill Clinton for national security affairs, said Israel presumably would have to inform the U.S. military that it would be flying in airspace that is largely American-controlled.
"From a strategic standpoint, it's hard to see what you gain [from an airstrike] and easy to see what harm you could do to both Israel and U.S. interests," Crowley said.
In his comments Wednesday, Mullen appeared to veer away from the administration's stated policy of refusing direct talks when he said there needs to better dialogue on the issue.
"They remain a destabilizing factor in the region," Mullen said. "But I'm convinced a solution still lies in using other elements of national power to change Iranian behavior, including diplomatic, financial and international pressure. There is a need for better clarity, even dialogue at some level."
In a separate development, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the Navy's 5th Fleet, warned Iran on Wednesday that the U.S. would take action if Tehran tried to cut the sea lane through the Strait of Hormuz, a choke point in the flow of much of the world's oil supply. Cosgriff's comments were in response to Iranian officials' threats against Hormuz if there is a Western attack on Iran.
When asked about the threat by Iran to disrupt oil shipments at a White House news conference Wednesday, Bush reiterated that military strikes remain an option but one he preferred not to take.
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