02/21/2012 12:25 pm ET

Army Delays Troop Cuts, Citing Instability In Iran And Middle East

WASHINGTON -- Anticipating continued trouble in the Middle East and a possible conflict with Iran, the Army got permission from the Obama administration to delay finalizing its budget-cutting troop reductions for six years, said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff.

"What I'm worried about is if we get too small, people miscalculate,'' Odierno said Tuesday when asked about Iran at a meeting with defense reporters. "It's a very uncertain area, and that's what concerns me."

"That's another reason I asked for six years to downsize the Army -- if something happens, you want to make sure the president has the option to react however he so chooses,'' he said.

Odierno, who spent five years as a senior commander in Iraq, cited continuing violence in Iraq and Syria as reasons to worry about the instability of the region, which could be further threatened if Iran pushes ahead to develop nuclear weapons.

But like the other military service chiefs who make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Odierno came down firmly on the side of using harsh economic sanctions against Iran to turn it away from its nuclear weapons program, rather than resorting to military strikes. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Sunday that a strike on Iran would not be "prudent.''

"What we don't want to see is an unnecessary expansion of conflict right now,'' said Odierno, a battle-decorated combat soldier.

He acknowledged that a nuclear-armed Iran would further destabilize the region, perhaps igniting a regional nuclear arms race that would hold "quite significant'' implications for the United States.

"Sanctions are working -- all the reports I get is that they are having a significant impact,'' he said. "It's important that we continue on. There's nothing better than having almost unanimous international pressure, and that's what you're seeing on Iran. We obviously want to see this continue.''

Like other combat commanders who have spent years working in the Middle East, Odierno is well aware of the deep fault lines that run through the region; he specifically mentioned territorial, religious and political fissures that have made it an unstable region for centuries.

In Iraq, for example, Odierno said that while the violence seems to be abating and parliament is still meeting, a big test is looming ahead as oil revenues increase, raising pressure on the government to decide how to divide up the money. "That's the next thing I look at -- does it go to a few, or does it go back to the Iraqi economy and help all the people. That's what will really determine'' whether the current struggles for power remain largely nonviolent, he said.

Under the administration's budget blueprint, the Army is scheduled to reduce from 570,000 to 490,000 troops, a reduction of about 14 percent. The White House agreed to give the Army until 2017 to accomplish the cuts.

Odierno said that despite its downsizing, the Army will continue to prepare for "hybrid'' warfare, conflict that encompasses conventional battles, insurgents, terrorism and crime -- a description that some analysts believe would describe a widening conflict in the Middle East.