WASHINGTON, Feb. 16, 2010 - The top U.S. military officer criticized Iran's recent announcement that it would increase levels of uranium enrichment to 20 percent, saying the move further destabilizes the Middle East.
The remarks by Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came after the government in Tehran reportedly vowed on Feb. 9 to produce uranium at higher levels, fueling fears it would move Iran a step closer to obtaining nuclear weaponry.
"The Iranian announcement a couple of days ago is of concern to all of us," Mullen told reporters on Feb. 14 in Tel Aviv, Israel. "I think Iran needs to make strategic moves which help stabilize the region, and in fact, they continue to make moves which further destabilize the region, which is what happened the other day with this announcement."
Tehran has stated its nuclear pursuit is toward peaceful ends, saying the more highly enriched uranium would produce fuel to power medical equipment. But many international observers believe that Iran wants to obtain a nuclear weapon.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly called on Tehran to provide assurances to the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful and transparent, a request backed by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- plus Germany. But Iran continues to ignore demands by these so-called P5-plus-1 nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog organization.
"An awful lot of people [are focused] on Iran and the announcement the other day that they've increased the level of enrichment in what I would call a pretty public and defiant way," Mullen said in a Feb. 14 interview with McClatchy Newspapers.
Mullen, during a trip through the Middle East, said the Iranian government's announcement presented an opportunity to reinforce engagement with Iran. He characterized the U.S. as working from "the diplomatic and engagement and sanctions point of view," and added that tougher sanctions were being discussed.
Speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv, Mullen declined to identify at what point Tehran's nuclear ambitions might prompt military action. But he warned against the prospect of war with Iran.
"I think them getting a weapon and/or the outbreak of a conflict would be a big, big problem for all of us," he said, "and I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences of a strike."
But the chairman repeatedly has refused to rule out any options in dealing with Iran, which appears to be extending its reach in the Middle East.
Mullen said Iranian influence appears to be growing in Yemen, where Tehran reportedly is backing the Shiite Houthi clan engaged in a civil war against the Saudi-backed Sunni government in Yemen. Iran also reportedly has contacts with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
"Their reach into Lebanon, their reach into Gaza and throughout the region - their reach into Yemen," he told reporters in Cairo, "I think all those things may continue to foment a lot of instability, which is very dangerous for all of us."