It was dispelled Wednesday by Adm. Mike Mullen, who repeatedly made clear that he opposes an attack on Iran — whether by Israel or his own forces — and, moreover, favors dialogue with Tehran. While various media have printed or run excerpts of his press conference, I think it might be useful to post virtually all of his remarks regarding Iran just to illustrate how clear he was:
[In his opening statement, he says] “I will say this, however: My position with regard to the Iranian regime hasn’t changed. They remain a destabilizing factor in the region, and that’s evident and actually more evident when one visits. 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 response to a question about his discussions with his counterpart in Israel during his recent visit there, he says] “Certainly, the concern about Iran continues to exist. And you talk about the nuclear threat. And I believe they’re still on a path to get to nuclear weapons and I think that’s something that needs to be deterred. They are — and I talk about my time up on the border. They are very involved with Syria, very involved with Hezbollah, supporting Hamas. And so the network that they support is also a very dangerous one and a very destabilizing one.”
[Asked about what the consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran and how the Iranians would react, he says] “Well, I …don’t want to speculate in that regard. Clearly, there is a very broad concern about the stability level — the overall stability level in the Middle East. I’ve been pretty clear before that from the United States’ perspective, the United States’ military perspective in particular, that opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us. That doesn’t mean we don’t have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging. And also the consequences of that sometimes are very difficult to predict.
“So I think that, you know, just about every move in that part of the world is a high-risk move. And that’s why I think it’s so important that the international piece, the financial piece, the diplomatic piece, the economic piece be brought to bear with a level of intensity that resolves this.”
[Asked whether he was suggesting that an Israeli attack would drag the U.S. into a military confrontation with Iran, he says] “I’m not specifically again speculating about what the consequences of any action would be. It is a very, very broad, and what has been enduring for a while, concern about the instability in that part of the world. And destabilizing acts, destabilizing events are of great concern to me.”
“…I’m really very focused on trying to inject as much stability in that part of the world. And it is my view that Iran is at the center of what is unstable in that part of the world. And it reaches all the way, you know, from Tehran to Beirut.”
[After insisting that U.S. forces could prevent Iran from closing the Straits of Hormuz at least for any sustained period, Mullen is asked to elaborate on what he meant by the need for dialogue and whether it includes military-to-military talks.] “No, I’ve — when I talk about dialogue — actually, I would say very broadly, across the entirety of our government and their government, but specifically that would … need to be led, obviously, politically and diplomatically. And if it then resulted in a military-to-military dialogue, I think that part of it certainly could add to a better understanding about each other. But I’m really focused on the diplomatic aspect.”
“…We haven’t had much of a dialogue with the Iranians for a long time, and I think if I were just to take the high stakes that …I just talked about a minute ago, part of the results of that engagement or lack of engagement, I think, is there. But as has been pointed out more than once, it takes two people to want to have a dialogue, not just the desire on one part.”
[Asked whether he’s saying there’s a need for dialogue between the United States government and the Iranian government, he says] “…I think it’s a broad dialogue. I think it would cover the full spectrum of international — and it could very well certainly cover the dialogue between us as well.”
Mullen is actually going further in calling for dialogue than former Centcom Commander Adm. William “Fox” Fallon did. And note that there’s no mention of the current precondition, that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment. His opposition to any attack by Israel is really quite explicit.
Now, the question is, why did Mullen, who clearly enjoys the backing of his boss, Pentagon chief Robert Gates, go as far as he went in his remarks? Is it simply an effort to tamp down rising tensions (and oil prices) set off the threats and counter-threats of the last few weeks, as even the White House seemed inclined to do, particularly in the wake of Israel’s well-advertised exercises last month and the publication of Sy Hersh’s New Yorker article over the weekend? Does it reflect real concern that Israel may indeed be preparing to attack unilaterally or that the hawks are gaining ground in their push for an attack before the the administration leaves office? Or does it reflect confidence that the realists are in control and that now, particularly in light of indications this past week that the Iranians may be prepared to conditionally accept the latest 5+1 offer, is the moment to push for serious engagement? I think it’s still too early to tell, but the message behind these remarks is pretty clear: the Pentagon brass are firmly opposed to military action.