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Attacking Iran: Is it a real option for the US?

Mark Mardell | 17:03 UK time, Monday, 19 April 2010

Adm Mike Mullen

America's top brass has pointed to the elephant in the Iranian room, only to make it clear it's a particularly unattractive beast.

Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Adm Mike Mullen has said that a US air strike on Iran could "go a long way to delaying" Iran's nuclear program, but would be his "last option".

But he suggested that as far as he was concerned, it was not only a last option, but a bad one.

He added it was not his call, but the president's. It sounds pretty clear he doesn't want the bombers to fly. Ever.

"There are those that say, 'come on, Mullen, get over that. They're going to get it. Let's deal with it'. Well, dealing with it has unintended consequences that I don't think we've all thought through. I worry that other countries in the region will then seek to, actually, I know they will, seek nuclear weapons as well. That spiral headed in that direction is a very bad outcome."

This follows the fuss about a top secret memo from Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

The New York Times, which published the story, gave the impression that it was intended as a wake-up call to the president, arguing that the USA does not have an effective long-term policy for dealing with Iran.

Mr Gates took the unusual step of releasing a statement saying the New York Times had got the memo wrong and "mischaracterised its purpose and content".

He said that it wasn't a wake-up call but had raised a series of questions and options to go along with "the Administration's pivot to a pressure track on Iran earlier this year".
Pivoting to a pressure track sounds like an unwieldy and possibly painful manouevre, but apparently refers to the energetic pursuit of sanctions and what might follow if they don't work.

Mr Gates continues to say that "there should be no confusion by our allies and adversaries that the United States is properly and energetically focused on this question and prepared to act across a board range of contingencies in support of our interests."

So the elephant will find itself talked about more and more this year, but the administration's approach to military action seems to boil down to "we could, we might (but we won't).

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