Pentagon Chief Raises Threat of Attack as Iran Taunts US With Missile Display

 

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2-L) during a military ceremony in Tehran

(ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH )

President Ahmadinejad, second left, confers with his Defence Minister, Ahmad Vahidi, during yesterday’s parade

Giles Whittell, Washington

 

The Pentagon was ratcheting up pressure for military action against Iran last night as America’s top uniformed official said for the first time that a strike on nuclear targets would “go a long way” towards delaying Tehran’s uranium enrichment programme.

The remarks by Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were his strongest yet in support of a strategy that both the Pentagon and the Obama Administration still regard as a last resort and possibly a recipe for a regional war.

They came as President Ahmadinejad taunted the US with a potent display of missile technology, while a leaked top-secret memo by Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, forced the White House to insist that it was preparing for all contingencies.

Mr Ahmadinejad used Iran’s annual army day parade to show off missiles capable of hitting US and Israeli targets throughout the Middle East and to demand a US military withdrawal from the region. As he did so, two senior White House officials issued strong responses to the disclosure that Mr Gates had written a classified assessment of weaknesses in the Administration’s plans for what to do if Iran failed to halt its nuclear weapons programme.

The war of words in Washington may reflect a power struggle between an Administration still committed to a diplomatic approach to Iran and an increasingly impatient Pentagon.

Speaking at Columbia University, Admiral Mullen said last night of the Iranian nuclear programme: “Military options would go a long way to delaying it. That’s not my call. That’s going to be the President’s call. But from my perspective . . . the last option is to strike right now.”

According to one report the Pentagon is moving hundreds of bunker-buster bombs to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The latest version of the weapon, known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, is said to weigh 15 tonnes and be capable of burrowing through 200ft of reinforced concrete before exploding.

In a warning to anyone planning a strike on Iranian nuclear targets, Mr Ahmadinejad told Iranians in a televised speech that their country was so strong “that no enemy will harbour evil thoughts about laying its hands on Iranian territory”. He said of US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf: “They have to leave our region. This is not a request. It is an order from the nations of the region.”

Such rhetoric reflects the worrying reality for Washington that Iran is more concerned about military encirclement by the US than by President Obama’s efforts to persuade it to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The White House hoped that its revelation of a secret nuclear fuel enrichment site near Qom, northwestern Iran, last September would produce concessions from Tehran and the international resolve necessary for new sanctions against the business interests of the Republican Guard. Instead, talks on a deal to export the country’s low-enriched uranium in return for foreign assistance on a civilian nuclear power programme went nowhere, and Russia and China continued to resist sanctions in the UN Security Council.

Against this background Mr Gates wrote a memo described by those who have seen it as a “wake-up call” to General James Jones, Mr Obama’s National Security Adviser. It warned that the Administration had no effective plans to deal with Iran should it assemble the components of a nuclear weapon but stop short of building one. Mr Gates also noted that detecting a shift from such a “virtual” nuclear capability to fully armed status would be almost impossible and that no coherent strategy was in place to face down Tehran once such a shift was made.

The memo was written in January but its existence was disclosed by The New York Times at the weekend. Ben Rhodes, a White House spokesman, said that it was “absolutely false” that the document had forced the Administration to reassess its options on Iran, while General Jones told the newspaper: “The fact that we don’t announce publicly our entire strategy doesn’t mean we don’t have a strategy that anticipates the full range of contingencies — we do.”

It was unclear yesterday who was behind the leak of the Gates memo but the vehemence of the White House response suggests that senior Pentagon figures may be responsible. A similar pattern shadowed Mr Obama’s decision to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan last year.

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