WASHINGTON — A military strike to thwart Iran's nuclear weapons capability remains on the table but could have grave and unpredictable consequences, the top U.S. military officer said Tuesday.
"I worry a great deal about the response of a country that gets struck," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It is a really important place to not go, if we can not go there in any way, shape or form."
Iran is perhaps one to three years away from getting the bomb, leaving a small and shrinking opening for diplomacy to avert what he said could be a dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East, Mullen said.
"I think the time window is closing."
Mullen said President Barack Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran holds promise, despite political upheaval and deadly protests following Iran's disputed presidential election.
Obama told The Associated Press last week that persuading Iran to forgo nuclear weapons has been made more difficult by the Iranian government's handling of claims that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole re-election.
Mullen pointedly said "the strike option" _ is one possible outcome. He suggested that a strike, meaning missile or other attacks to blow up Iran's known nuclear facilities, is a last resort. It would be "very destabilizing," Mullen said.
Mullen was referring to Iran's response should it be attacked by either the United States or Israel, although he was careful to say that Israel can speak and choose for itself. His remarks made clear that the Obama administration wants to avoid a strike by either country.
Mullen, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is critical to find a solution "before Iran gets a nuclear capability, or that anyone ... would take action to strike."
On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden had suggested that the new U.S. administration would not stand in the way of an Israeli strike. That is not the message U.S. officials have been trying to deliver in public and private, but spokesmen insisted Biden was not speaking out of turn.
The United States would join European nations, Russia and China in negotiations over Iran's disputed nuclear program, if Iran agreed to terms for beginning the talks. Obama has also said he would hold direct talks with Iran's leadership if it would help. leaders of Group of Eight countries have yet to forge a common position on Iran's violent crackdown on post-electoral protests, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Tuesday on the eve of the summit.
Berlusconi, who chairs the gathering of world leaders opening Wednesday, noted that some countries, such as France, were calling for tougher action against Tehran, while others, such as Russia, favored a softer stance to keep dialogue open.
Iran claims its fast-track nuclear development project is intended only for the peaceful production of electricity. Mullen, like other U.S. officials, said he is sure Iran intends to develop weapons and is working hard and fast to do so.