Bush moves to downplay rumors of war

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President Bush and the nation’s top military commander moved Wednesday to dampen speculation about a military strike on Iran, stressing their preference for a diplomatic solution and noting the problems that a “third front” would pose for an overstretched military.

Long-simmering tensions remained, however, with the Navy warning that it will not allow Iran to halt oil shipments through a key waterway and Iran’s oil minister saying his country will “react fiercely” if attacked.

Fears of an imminent attack had mounted after ABC News quoted an unnamed U.S. senior defense official saying Iran’s nuclear program was nearing the “red lines” that would trigger an Israeli offensive. The current issue of the New Yorker, meanwhile, carries an article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh saying the United States has a $400 million budget for covert intelligence and sabotage operations in Iran.

Mr. Bush addressed the speculation at a White House press conference, saying that although military action remains “on the table,” the first option to resolve concerns over Iran’s suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons should be diplomatic.

“And the best way to solve it diplomatically is for the United States to work with other nations to send a focused message, and that is that you will be isolated and you will have economic hardship if you continue trying to enrich.”

Speaking separately to reporters at the Pentagon, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out the difficulty of waging war against Iran while the United States is heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us,” Adm. Mullen said in remarks seen as reflecting the views of key war commanders.

“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.”

To underscore that point, Adm. Mullen said the Pentagon cannot supply badly needed reinforcements to Afghanistan, where Taliban attacks are rising, unless the peaceful trends in Iraq continue.

“I am, and have been for some time now, deeply troubled by the increasing violence” in Afghanistan, Adm. Mullen said. “I don’t have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq.”

At the same time, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf said that Iran would not be allowed to succeed in any effort to seal off the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the oil-producing Persian Gulf nations to international waterways and through which about 40 percent of the world’s oil is shipped.

The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard threatened recently to shut down the strait if Israel or the U.S. takes military action against Tehran’s nuclear program, but Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the 5th Fleet, said the U.S. “will not allow Iran to close it.”

Iranian officials sent mixed messages.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said of an Israeli or U.S. attack that he does “not foresee such a possibility at the moment.”

“The Israeli government is facing a political breakdown within itself and within the region, so we do not foresee such a possibility for that regime to resort to such craziness,” Mr. Mottaki told the Associated Press in an interview.

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