WASHINGTON - The nominee to be the next chief of the US military on Tuesday warned Iran not to pursue nuclear weapons or sponsor attacks in Iraq, saying it would be making a “serious miscalculation.”
At his confirmation hearing, General Martin Dempsey pledged to guide the world’s most powerful military through a new era of tighter budgets and challenges such as cyber war. He promised to carry out orders for a drawdown in Afghanistan and to keep up pressure on Pakistan to fight Islamic militants. But Dempsey, now the US Army’s chief of staff, saved some of his toughest criticism for Iran. In prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he called the clerical regime a “destabilizing force.” “With its nuclear activities and its surrogate activities in southern Iraq, there is a high potential that Iran will make a serious miscalculation of US resolve,” said Dempsey, nominated to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dempsey said that Iran may be seeking a “Beirut-like moment” in Iraq — a reference to the devastating 1983 attack against US and French forces in the Lebanese capital claimed by Iranian-linked Islamic militants. Dempsey said Iran wanted to “send a message that they have expelled us from Iraq.” The United States plans to pull its remaining 47,000 troops from Iraq at the end of the year, ending a deeply polarizing military mission.
“As long as we’ve got those soldiers there, we’re going to do whatever we have to do to protect them, and I want to make sure that’s clear to everyone,” Dempsey said during questioning. Iran, which has had tense relations with the United States since the 1979 Islamic revolution, has refused to halt uranium enrichment, which it contends is for civilian energy. The United Nations has imposed four rounds of sanctions, with Western nations accusing Iran of building a nuclear bomb.
Iran has repeatedly denied US accusations of arming insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is led by Shiite Muslim clerics, who share the faith of Iraq’s majority, which was suppressed under late dictator Saddam Hussein. Dempsey, who led units in Iraq during some of the war’s bloodiest years, admitted candidly during the hearing that he did not fully appreciate Islam’s Shiite-Sunni divide before president George W. Bush ordered the invasion. “I didn’t understand the dynamic inside that country, particularly with regard to the various sects of Islam that fundamentally on occasion compete with each other,” Dempsey said. “When we took the lid off of that, I think we learned some things ... and I’m not sure we could have learned them any other way,” he said. Dempsey, whose four-decade career has included teaching English to West Point cadets, would oversee the military as Obama begins the pullout of some 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer.
Dempsey said he supported Obama’s decision. But grilled by Senator John McCain, a Republican and staunch military advocate, Dempsey said of the pullout plan: “I think it did increase the risk, yes.” Obama has tripled troop numbers in Afghanistan since taking office. But the war is increasingly unpopular with a public that questions the human and financial cost of the longest war in US history. The United States has stepped up its focus on neighboring Pakistan, launching drone attacks in border areas and killing Osama bin Laden in May.
Dempsey voiced concern that Pakistan was more preoccupied with historic rival India than with Islamic extremists in its western region. The United States is working to convince Pakistan that extremists are “as great a threat and probably a greater threat to them than any threat that India might pose,” Dempsey said. Dempsey acknowledged he had limited experience with China, whose defense spending has been rising sharply. He echoed outgoing military chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, who recently traveled to China and encouraged further exchanges. “We should welcome a strong, prosperous and successful China that plays a responsible role in world affairs,” Dempsey said in the prepared testimony. “However, a lack of transparency into the pace and scale of China’s military modernization raises concerns within the region,” he said.