'Premature' to use military force against Iran, Joint Chiefs chairman says

Dempsey says the U.S. remains committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

The current U.S.-led push to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions through steadily increasing economic and diplomatic pressure is beginning to show results and it would be "premature" to resort to military force, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview on Thursday.

Dempsey, the nation's highest military officer, told National Journal that the U.S. remained committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and was prepared to use force if necessary. But he cautioned that a conflict with Iran would destabilize the region and potentially have a severe economic impact on the U.S.

"I do think the path we're on—the economic sanctions and the diplomatic pressure—does seem to me to be having an effect," Dempsey said during the interview in his Pentagon office. "I just think that its premature to be deciding that the economic and diplomatic approach is inadequate."

The comments represented the first time senior Pentagon officials weighed in, even indirectly, on the recent calls for increasing the military pressure on Iran, a common talking point for conservative politicians and the leading Republican presidential candidates.

Dempsey was careful not to wade into the domestic political debate by referring to the Republicans, naming any of the candidates, or directing his comments specifically at them.

Still, he made clear he believed an approach involving military force wasn't warranted at this point and could carry unforeseen risks.

"A conflict with Iran would be really destabilizing, and I'm not just talking from the security perspective," he said. "It would be economically destabilizing."

Dempsey said he'd delivered a similar message of caution to Israel's top leadership during a visit to the Jewish state last week. Israeli leaders see an Iranian nuclear weapon as a direct threat to their survival, and believe Iran may be just months away from having enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb. That, in turn, has prompted growing speculation that Israeli forces may soon carry out air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, a move opposed by the Obama administration.

The general said he and the Israelis each argued their positions "aggressively" during the high-level talks, but conceded that the two close allies simply see the threat—and potentially how soon to act against it—very differently.

"We have to acknowledge that they ... see that threat differently than we do. Its existential to them," he said. "My intervention with them was not to try to persuade them to my thinking or allow them to persuade me to theirs, but rather to acknowledge the complexity and commit to seeking creative solutions, not simple solutions."

Dempsey's comments come amid growing tensions with Iran, which this month threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz—one of the world's busiest oil-shipping routes—and warned U.S. warships not to pass through the international waterway. Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said they'd use force if Iran made any attempt to block off the straits, a move they said would be a "red line" for the U.S.

In the interview, Dempsey said he and the military supported the administration's determination to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon by any means necessary. He said the U.S. was increasing its economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran while making preparations—if there was no other option—for a possible military intervention into the country.

But the general, a 37-year veteran who has seen war's human costs up close in the first Gulf War and in Iraq, cautioned that using force should be a last resort, not a first one.

"We are determined to prevent them from acquiring that weapon, but that doesn't mean dropping bombs necessarily," he said. "I personally believe that we should be in the business of deterring as the first priority."