Pentagon Chief: Israeli Attack on Iran Would Endanger Mideast

Adm. Michael Mullen also said if Tehran acquires nuclear weapons, the U.S. might take military action.

On the eve of Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi's visit to the United States for talks on Iran's nuclear program, his American counterpart, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, warned last Thursday that an Israeli attack on Iran might lead to escalation, undermine the region's stability and endanger the lives of Americans in the Persian Gulf "who are under the threat envelope right now."

Asked by interviewer Charlie Rose of PBS television what would happen if Israel attacked Iran, Mullen, referring to the frequent statement that "all options are on the table," said such an "option generates a much higher level of risk in terms of outcomes in the region and it really concerns me."

However, he also expressed concern about Iran acquiring nuclear capabilities, saying it would "be very destabilizing" to the region because "their neighbors are extremely concerned about it. I worry about the proliferation which would occur."

"If other parts of the world are an example, neighborhoods, when they get one, they start to proliferate," he explained. "So it really ... dramatically increases the danger in the region."

Mullen commented favorably on President Barack Obama's plan to begin a dialogue with Iran, but said that if this dialogue fails and Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the U.S. might take military action. Though America's ground forces are "stretched" in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has a "very strong" strategic reserve in the air force and the navy, he noted.

Mullen said that he and Ashkenazi are "by and large" in agreement on Iran's progress toward obtaining nuclear weapons - namely, that it will not happen before 2010 - and that any discrepancies between the Israeli and American estimates are insignificant. He said the two men have been in agreement on this issue for the "better part of the last six months or so. There was a time that we weren't, but we've actually worked pretty hard to understand where we both are and so I think generally, we're in agreement."

Mullen, who maintains close contact with Ashkenazi, will be away from Washington during the chief of staff's visit there. Instead, Ashkenazi will meet with Mullen's deputy, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, as well as National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special adviser for the Gulf and Southwest Asia, Dennis Ross. Before going to Washington, he held several meetings in New York last week, including one with United Nations envoy to Lebanon Terje Larsen on arms smuggling to Hezbollah.

Mullen also told PBS that he and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates do not disagree about Iran's nuclear project. A comment Mullen made recently to CNN created the impression that he believes Iran has sufficient uranium to produce its first bomb, whereas Gates has repeatedly declared that Iran is still far from this. But Mullen explained that his answer related to the question of whether Iran has enough low-enriched uranium, not enough of the high-enriched type needed to make a bomb.

"In terms of the timeline, you know, I'm in agreement with both Blair and the secretary of defense that the timeline hasn't changed ... 2010 to 2015 is kind of the timeline that's out there" for when Iran will be able to produce a nuclear weapon.

"I fundamentally believe that the Iranians are on a path to do that," he added. "I've had that belief for some time. And I think they will continue to move in that direction. That's about the timeline that we're in right now. And almost halfway through 2009, 2010 isn't very far away."

Also last week, the head of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, described Hezbollah as a "strategic partner" of Iran. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Maples said that the entire U.S. intelligence community believes Iran is "keeping open" the option of developing a nuclear weapon.

Damascus, Maples added, sees Hezbollah as part of Syria's defense in the event of renewed conflict with Israel and is therefore giving Hezbollah substantial aid, including antitank weapons. However, he said, the alliance between secular Syria and religious Iran is not a natural one, and might well become looser if Syria achieves significant gains in a peace deal with Israel.