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Risk to U.S. troops seen if Israel hits Iran

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. military’s top officer warned Wednesday that an Israeli airstrike against Iran would make the Middle East more unstable and could add to the stress on overworked American forces in the region.

The comments by Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came days after he visited Israel and amid growing international concern that Jerusalem is actively considering such an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Mullen spoke at a Pentagon news briefing shortly after President Bush addressed the subject. Bush was asked at a Rose Garden news conference whether he would strongly discourage Israel from an attack, but he sidestepped the question, saying only that he believed the best way to deal with the Iranian nuclear program was through multilateral negotiations.

“I have made it very clear to all parties that the first option ought to be to solve this problem diplomatically,” Bush said.

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The comments appeared to reflect a strain within the administration as it grapples for a way to address Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran says is peaceful but Washington and its allies suspect is intended for developing atomic weapons.

Bush long has pointedly left open the option of military action by the U.S. or Israel, and administration officials have said they will not interfere with Israel’s right to respond to what it sees as a looming threat. But American military officials are concerned that U.S. forces, stationed nearby in Iraq and Afghanistan, could become entangled in any conflict that would result.

The Bush administration is eager to keep the prospects of an Israeli strike on the table to maintain pressure on Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment program, said Jon B. Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“There’s a belief in the White House that we shouldn’t give comfort to the Iranians,” Alterman said. “We’re not actively planning an attack, as far as I know, but we’re not going to let the Iranians sleep well knowing there’s no possibility of an attack.”

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Fears of an Israeli attack have been fueled in recent weeks by large-scale war games by Israel’s air force over the Mediterranean and a warning by a senior official of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government that an attack could become unavoidable.

Although Bush did not directly answer the question about possible Israeli action, Mullen was more direct.

“Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful for us,” he said, referring to the prospect of a direct clash with Iran while fighting continues in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don’t need it to be more unstable.”

In his trip to Israel, Mullen met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of the Israeli defense staff. Mullen declined to say whether an airstrike was broached in his meetings but acknowledged that the Iranian threat was discussed and said he agreed that Tehran was a destabilizing force in the region.

Mullen has expressed his concerns for several months about the risks posed to U.S. troops in Iraq by a strike on Iran, Defense Department officials said, but those warnings have been made mostly in private. Mullen declined to say whether he had delivered his assessment to the White House in recent days.

American military analysts familiar with Israel’s thinking said the government there remained uncertain whether an attack on Iran made strategic sense and whether such a strike would prove a decisive blow against Tehran’s nuclear program. The subject is controversial in Israel, and many Israelis strongly oppose a strike.

Despite Mullen’s remarks, rhetoric surrounding a possible airstrike continued to escalate.

The head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard had warned last week that his government would impose controls on shipping through the Strait of Hormuz if the country was attacked. But U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff said at a conference of regional naval leaders Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, that the U.S. would not allow Iran to block the key waterway.

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“We will not allow them to close the Strait of Hormuz. I can’t say it any more clearly than that,” Cosgriff said, according to Reuters.

Despite Iran’s official public positions, the country’s leadership fears both a possible military attack and heightened sanctions and isolation, many analysts say. In recent days, Iran has rolled out a diplomatic initiative meant to ease U.S. pressure by currying favor with other world powers.

Iran is considering a package of economic and political incentives being offered by Western diplomats to pave the way for wide-ranging talks if it halts its uranium enrichment program. Diplomats have also suggested a less formal “freeze-for-freeze” package, a six-week period of preliminary talks during which Iran would stop adding new uranium-enrichment capability while the West stops pushing for sanctions.

Many Iranian political heavyweights have sought to change the popular Western view that the country is run by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose remarks calling for the destruction of Israel have been cited as evidence of Iran’s ultimate intentions.

In an unusual article published Wednesday in the French daily Liberation, a powerful Iranian foreign policy official emphasized the role of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, as the ultimate authority in Iran.

“In key strategic issues, it’s the supreme leader that the Constitution, approved by universal suffrage, [says] has the final decision,” wrote Ali Akbar Velayati, a highly placed advisor to Khamenei and a former foreign minister who appears on Iran’s political scene during peak crisis moments.

He urged readers to look at Khamenei’s track record to “predict the future course” of Iran’s diplomacy.

“A compromise could be made using concerns common to Iran and other states,” Velayati said.

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Backers of the White House’s course contend that the increasingly divergent voices coming out of Tehran are thanks, in part, to continued U.S. pressure and the prospect of an Israeli attack.

But some key international players have argued against military action. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, said over the weekend that an Israeli attack on Iran would turn the Middle East into “a ball of fire.”

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.


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