Yesterday, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a rare public appearance to speak about America’s challenges in the Middle East. For his venue, he chose the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the main thinktank in Washington for the Israel lobby. His audience was at least a couple of hundred strong, with a bank of at least ten television cameras.

During his appearance, his hosts — in the form of Rob Satloff, the executive director of WINEP — pressed him to lay down a marker on Iran, which is the chief preoccupation of the lobby. However, contrary to some news reports and blog accounts of Mullen’s comments at WINEP, the admiral clearly backed away from anything that sounded like a military threat, and it was clear throughout his entire remarks that Mullen, and the US military, is exceedingly averse to an armed confrontation with Tehran.

That’s not the take, for instance, from the Jerusalem Post which headlined its article breathlessly: "US preparing for possible Iran conflict." The JP decided to emphasize Mullen’s mundane comment that the United States has a contingency plan to go to war with Iran, ignoring the obvious fact that the Pentagon has contingencies for many unlikely and even unthinkable actions, and the pape downplayed Mullen’s repeated comments that the Pentagon is trying to do everything it can to avoid a conflict with Iran.

In his prepared remarks, Mullen compared Iran to Pakistan in an intelligent way, i.e., he noted that because of the overt hostility between the United States and Pakistan from 1990 to 2002, over its nuclear program, the two countries developed an animosity and lack of trust that he is working to overcome. Then he compared that to Iran, in regard to which the US has suffered from three decades of hostility, and he made it plain that the goal of the United States must be to work to overcome those bad feelings and suspicion, too. Here is the text:

"And then when I come back to Iran, we haven’t had a relationship with Iran since 1979. And so building that kind of relationship, and what does that mean — and I speak to the difficulty of the other relationships and look at what thirty years potentially can do. So there’s an awful lot of both concern, potential and, I think, focus, that needs to be sustained with respect to Iran and that part of the world. And we have great friends in that part of the world — allies who’ve supported us and who are very anxious to continue to support us and to see stability there, particularly in the Gulf area, and not see it break out into any kind conflict."

When Satloff pressed him on Iran, Mullen added:

"When asked about striking Iran, specifically, that … has a very, very destabilizing outcome. … That part of the world could become much more unstable, which is a dangerous global outcome, much less regional, for the world we’re living in right now. … That’s why one of the things that I think it so important is that we continue internationally, diplomatically, politically — not just we, the United States, but the international community — continue to focus on this." 

Mullen did say, point blank, that he believes that Iran has the strategic intent to develop a nuclear weapon. "I believe they’re on a path that has a strategic intent to develop nuclear weapons, and have been for some time. And as I’ve said in more than one forum, I think that outcome is potentially a very, very destabilizing outcome." Whether you believe that Iran is in fact conducting a clandestine program to manufacture and deploy a nuclear bomb, or whether you believe it is seeking merely to develop the capability to assemble a bomb quickly (often described as the "Japan option," referring to Japan’s ability to do so), it’s clear that for the current Iranian leadership, particularly the militant Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, indeed sees Iran’s nuclear research in less-than-peaceful terms. In other words, for the IRGC Iran’s enrichment program has very little to do with the idea of civilian power plants.

But Mullen, I believe, probably recognizes that the job for the United States in coming decade will be to contain and deal with a nuclear Iran, not to go to war to prevent it from acquiring that capability. And, like the rest of the Obama administration, Mullen supports a diplomatic effort. Whether a diplomatic approach can succeed isn’t clear. To be successful, President Obama has to place on the table, at least behind the scenes, an offer to allow Iran to own and operate a uranium enrichment program, as long as Tehran accepts onerous international supervision. So far, even while engaging Iran diplomatically, Obama has stuck with the failed Bush policy of demanding an end to enrichment, and there’s little indication that they’ve told Iran quietly that the US bottom line is that Iran can have an enrichment program. My own reporting supports the notion that many US administration officials do understand that there’s no going back for Iran’s enrichment program. (See "Talking with Tehran," from The Nation, last October.)

You can read the whole transcript of Mullen’s event here.