Image: Michael Mullen
Luis Alvarez  /  AP
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, gestures during a news conference at the Pentagon, Wednesday, July 2, 2008 in Washington.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/3/2008 5:05:00 PM ET 2008-07-03T21:05:00

It could turn out to be one of the most significant comments of the 2008 campaign — but coming just ahead of a holiday weekend, it isn’t getting much notice.

Upon his return from a visit to Israel and Europe, the nation’s highest ranking military officer warned Wednesday that a military strike on Iran would be a very bad idea.

“This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don't need it to be more unstable,” said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen.

He added pointedly, “we haven't had much of a dialogue with the Iranians for a long time,” seeming to imply that the Bush administration should be talking to the Iranian government.

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Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama has said that if elected, he would begin talks with Iran, without any precondition.

The Bush administration has insisted that before talks can begin, Iran must cease its nuclear enrichment — a step toward building nuclear weapons.

Video: Issues '08: Iran

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain has said that his rival's willingness to hold direct talks, without preconditions, reveals "the depth of Sen. Obama's inexperience and reckless judgment.”

Adm. Mullen, much like Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, is one of those powerful unelected officials whose words could, at times, have as much effect on the campaign as Obama and McCain themselves.

It’s unusual for a military officer, especially the nation’s highest ranking one, to warn in such explicit terms of potential military action and to so emphatically call for diplomacy.

“What struck me about the comments was that he called for dialogue with Iran in his preliminary statement, even before he was responding to (reporters’) questions,” said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Alterman pointed to Mullen’s opening statement in which he said, “I'm convinced a solution still lies in using other elements of national power to change Iranian behavior, including diplomatic, financial and international pressure. There is a need for better clarity, even dialogue at some level.”

Not ruling out use of military force
President Bush, McCain, and Obama, all say they would not rule out the use of military force to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.

But Mullen appeared to be edging toward saying that military action, either by Israel or the United States, or both, would be catastrophic.

Video: Bush presses for diplomacy toward Iran He also warned that the United States would be hard pressed to conduct operations against Iran, given the commitment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“From the United States' perspective, the United States' military perspective, in particular, opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us,” Mullen told reporters. “That doesn't mean we don't have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging.”

And, he added, “The consequences of that (military action) sometimes are very difficult to predict.”

Mullen explained, “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.”

The Israeli air force staged a large-scale drill last month that some observers saw as a warning of a possible Israeli attack on Iran.

But Mullen assured reporters Wednesday that “the Israeli press reported fairly widely that…those exercises were planned and routine.”

In 1981, the Israeli air force destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. The Israeli government believed Saddam Hussein's regime was planning to use the plant to make nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel.

An attack on Iranian nuclear sites could cause the Iranian regime to attack shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s total daily oil demand is carried.

Oil prices hit a record high of nearly $146 a barrel on Thursday. As Americans drive during this July 4 vacation, one reason they're paying more than $4.50 a gallon in some parts of the country is the growing tension over Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday that the United States and Israel would not risk such an attack.

“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," Mottaki said. “The United States, too, is not in a position where it can engage in, take another risk in the region.”

In Congress, some members have expressed their fear that the Bush administration might launch a unilateral attack on Iran.

But last year the House rejected, by a vote of 288 to 136, an amendment offered by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D- Ore., that would have prohibited funds being used to take military action against Iran without specific authorization from Congress — unless Iran had first attacked the United States.

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