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.
"The United States, too, is not in a position where it can engage in, take another risk in the region," he said. "Of course, there are people in the United States who are interested in that. But we think that the rational thinkers in the United States will prevent that action [from] being taken and will prevent the imposition of another adventuresome act that would put pressure on the American taxpayers."
Iranian Oil Minister Gholam Hossein Nozari said Tehran will "react fiercely" if it is attacked.
Mr. Nozari also warned reporters at a conference in Spain that oil prices would shoot even higher in the event of such a military strike. Oil prices rose to record levels of $143 a barrel on Tuesday after ABC News reported that the chances of an Israeli strike against Iran have increased.
In his Pentagon news conference, Adm. Mullen seemed to buck the official U.S. intelligence community position when he said, "I believe they're still on a path to get to nuclear weapons."
The U.S. intelligence estimate on Iran, released in November, states, "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program," though that assessment was later qualified.
Adm. Mullen made his remarks after discussions in Israel with the Jewish state's top national security figures. Israel thinks Iran is a lot closer to building a nuclear weapon than does the U.S. intelligence community.
Said Adm. Mullen, "My position with regard to the Iranian regime hasn't changed. They remain a destabilizing factor in the region." But he said the "consequences" of an attack on Iran "are very difficult to predict."
Mr. Bush, seizing on the anxiety about the price of gas at the pump, pushed again for Congress to remove limitations on domestic oil drilling, including bans on such actions in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and along the outer continental shelf.
"It's a tough period for American consumers. I mean, nobody likes high gasoline prices, and I fully understand why Americans are concerned about gasoline prices," Mr. Bush said. "We have got the opportunity to find more crude oil here at home, in environmentally friendly ways, and they ought to be writing their Congress people about it.
"And yet, the Congress, the Democratically controlled Congress now has refused to budge. It makes no sense for, to watch these gasoline prices rise when we know we can help affect the supply of crude oil, which should affect the supply of gasoline prices," the president said.
Democrats say that drilling domestically would take too long to have any real effect on gas prices and that the Bush administration needs to increase fuel capacity standards in automobiles and do more to speed along the development of alternative fuels.
Polls have shown, however, that public support for more domestic drilling is rising. When the president visited Little Rock, Ark., on Tuesday, the biggest reaction he received during a roundtable conversation with homeowners and credit counselors was when he said the U.S. should drill for more oil.
"Yes, sir," said one woman, as several others murmured their assent.