April 21 (Bloomberg) -- Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen defended U.S. planning on Iran, saying President Barack Obama has made it a priority to make sure the Persian Gulf nation won’t gain a surprise nuclear capability.
“There’s always a concern with that,” Mullen said in an interview yesterday as he flew back to Washington from a domestic tour focused on the needs of military veterans. “There are an awful lot of intelligence agencies working this problem very hard to understand exactly where we are within the capabilities that we have.”
Republicans in Congress, including Arizona Senator John McCain and California Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, have voiced concern in hearings and statements that the administration doesn’t have a plan should diplomacy and sanctions fail to dissuade Iran from pursuing an atomic bomb.
The Iranian government rejects assertions by the U.S. and its allies that a uranium enrichment effort and a ballistic-missile program are part of a weapons-development project.
The congressional criticism escalated when the New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a January memo that the administration lacked an effective strategy to counter Iran in the event diplomacy and sanctions fail.
Gates issued a rebuttal, saying the memo had been “mischaracterized” and was meant to prepare for an “orderly and timely decision-making process.”
Mullen disputed the premise that the U.S. doesn’t have a strategy designed to counter a possible Iranian pursuit of a nuclear bomb.
Obama “has made it very clear that we certainly seek to ensure that Iran does not obtain that capability, and that’s the policy,” Mullen, 63, said. “Clearly the priority right now is the engagement, dialogue, sanctions piece, which I fully support.”
The U.S. is trying to persuade China and Russia in the United Nations Security Council to back a fourth set of economic and financial sanctions against Iran, after officials in Tehran failed to take up an offer for an alternative source of enriched uranium for a medical-isotopes reactor.
Still, a Pentagon report required by Congress for the first time this year outlined military plans Iran is making to defend its nuclear plants. The review of Iran’s military capabilities, submitted to lawmakers earlier this week, said the country’s leaders have set up a separate air defense force and are seeking a Russian weapons system with the aim of shielding the sites.
Mullen said the Defense Department has contingency plans for many threats, including potentially Iran, and “constantly” updates them based on new information.
“We’ve worked this very hard for years, not months,” Mullen said. “And it’s been a priority in this administration from the day the president took over.”
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