- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Iran’s influence in Iraq is posing a direct threat to peace in the region, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill debate whether talks with Tehran will bear fruit or further place U.S. war strategy in jeopardy.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, yesterday told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee that the influence of the Quds Force, a paramilitary arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, is risking progress made in Iraq. He said Iraq “remains our No. 1 strategic priority.”

“We cannot afford — the world cannot afford — to have an Iraq unable to govern, defend or sustain itself in effect and in practice as a failed state,” Adm. Mullen told the panel. “We get it wrong there, we place an unacceptable risk on our national interests throughout the Middle East. We get it wrong there, and Iran’s growing and negative influence, Hezbollah’s growing extremism or al Qaeda’s ability to reconstitute itself only intensify and imperil the region that much more.”

The chairman reiterated that another attack on the U.S. likely would come from al Qaeda forces regrouping in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, near the Afghanistan border.

“It’s a very difficult problem because this is sovereign territory” belonging to Pakistan, Adm. Mullen told the panel.

He said violence in Afghanistan is escalating, as is the growing opium trade, and he reiterated that extra forces in the region are necessary to stabilize the country.

Adm. Mullen said a “stable Iraq and Afghanistan that are long-term partners and share our commitment to peace will be critical to achieving regional stability and security.”

“This will require years, not months,” and “will require the support of the American people, our regional allies and concerted action by the Iraqi and Afghan people and their leaders,” he said.

He added, however, that the U.S. military is improving “counterinsurgency skills” and adapting to the “changing conditions” in the region from lessons learned in the past.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also testified at the hearing. Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, asked him whether it was wise to “insist on a concession like stopping enriching uranium” as leverage against Iran “before we even sit down and talk to them on a broader range of issues.”

Mr. Gates told Mr. Specter that the U.S. needs leverage before negotiating with Tehran. He said “financial sanctions against North Korea created significant leverage that helped prompt them to come to the negotiating table.”

“The key here is developing leverage, either through economic or diplomatic or military pressures on the Iranian government so they believe they must have talks with the United States because there is something they want from us, and that is the relief of the pressure,” he told the panel.