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US called ‘very ready’ to counter Iran nuclear threat

Joint Chiefs head gives assurances to nations in gulf

By Anne Gearan
Associated Press / December 19, 2010

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MANAMA, Bahrain — Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb pose a threat to its neighbors and the United States is “very ready’’ to counter Iran should it make a move, the top US military officer said yesterday.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sought to reassure Persian Gulf nations nervous that an increasingly militarized government in Iran might try to start a war.

“The United States takes very seriously our security commitments in the Gulf region,’’ Mullen said after a meeting with Bahrain’s king. Bahrain, directly across the Gulf from Iran, is home to a large US Navy base that would be on the front lines of any war with Iran.

“We’re very ready,’’ Mullen said, an unusually direct acknowledgment that the United States has contingency plans to counter Iran should it make a move. “There are real threats to peace and stability here, and we’ve made no secrets of our concerns about Iran.’’

In Iran, the new foreign minister — and current nuclear chief — said he wants to build the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and strengthen ties with Turkey, China, and Russia. The latter two countries have veto power on the UN Security Council that could help Iran as it tries to fend off tougher sanctions.

Ali Akbar Salehi, who heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, replaced longtime foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was fired Monday by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without public explanation.

Iran denies it is seeking to build a nuclear weapon and denies US assertions that it sponsors terrorists. Iran has wary relations with many of its neighbors, who are trading partners with the oil producer but distrust the theocratic government.

“Concerns about Iran’s nuclear program are very real and inform a lot of the decision-making’’ among Gulf nations, said Adam Ereli, the US ambassador in Bahrain.

The United States fears that if Iran masters the technical challenge of building a bomb it could set off a nuclear arms race around the Gulf.

“From my perspective, I see Iran continuing on this path to develop nuclear weapons, and I believe that that development and achieving that goal would be very destabilizing to the region,’’ Mullen said.

He gave no specifics about US plans or defenses, but the Navy base is headquarters for ships and aircraft that monitor Iran and could be used to deter or defend against what military officials fear would be an attack that would come without warning. The base also houses Patriot missiles.

The United States keeps tabs on Iran through extensive air surveillance in the Gulf and from naval patrols that regularly engage in formal communication with Iranian ships.

“I would like someday to think that they would be responsible regional and international players as opposed to what they are right now,’’ Mullen added. “I just haven’t seen any steps taken in that regard.’’

Mullen said he supports the current strategy of applying economic and political sanctions on Iran to try to dissuade it from building a bomb, while engaging Iran in international negotiations over the scope of its nuclear program. Iran contends it is simply seeking nuclear energy.

Mullen repeated his view that a preemptive military strike on Iran’s known nuclear facilities is a bad option that would set off “unintended consequences,’’ but one the United States reserves the right to use. The Obama administration has said it will not allow Iran to become a nuclear weapons state but has not said exactly what steps it would take to prevent that.

“I’ve said all options have been on the table and remain on the table,’’ Mullen said.

Iran is currently under four sets of UN Security Council sanctions and subject to additional penalties imposed separately by the United States, European countries, and others. The most recent round of Security Council sanctions was adopted in June.

The Obama administration and its European allies are prepared to impose additional sanctions if Iran fails to meet international demands to prove that its nuclear program is peaceful, a senior US official said Friday.

Salehi said he also wanted stronger ties with key ally and growing regional player Turkey and with China and Russia — two nations whose veto power on the UN Security Council is crucial to Tehran’s battle to ward off more sanctions.

Salehi also reached out to the European Union, in a shift from the confrontational stance Tehran usually takes toward the West.

“In spite of the EU’s illogical, unprincipled and unjust behavior, still EU members are pursuing dignified relations with Iran for many reasons, including the energy issue,’’ the official IRNA news agency quoted Salehi as saying. “Should the EU change as soon as possible its method of confrontation into one of cooperation, it will be in the interest of both parties.’’

In an interview with state television yesterday, Ahmadinejad addressed the recent talks with six world powers in Geneva over the nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad, who has staunchly defended Iran’s right to nuclear development, described the Geneva talks as “good,’’ possibly indicating that Iran is willing to discuss concerns over its nuclear program.

In the interview, he announced the start of a plan to slash energy and food subsidies, part of government efforts to boost the nation’s ailing economy, beginning today.

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