Israel's decision about a military strike to impede the Iranian nuclear weapons program depends to a large degree on the impact such a strike may have on the United States. The presence of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan may in fact be the principal barrier to decisive action to stop Iran, because Israel faces a conflict between dealing with the greatest threat it faces and the possible impact on the armed forces of its closest and most important ally.
For this reason, the IDF general staff and Israel's political leaders are keenly interested in the views of Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen has been deeply engaged in the U.S.-Israel strategic dalogue, and has spoken publicly on the issue several times in the past year.
On April 2, Mullen told the Wall Street Journal "there is a leadership in Israel that is not going to tolerate" a nuclear Iran, because Tehran's atomic designs are a matter of "life or death" for the Jewish state. "The operative word is 'existential." Mullen told the Journal that Israel is capable of inflicting meaningful damage to Iran's nuclear installations. He added, "I think the Iranians are on a path
to building nuclear weapons. We don't have a lot of time."
A month earlier, on the eve of IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi's visit to the United States for talks on Iran's nuclear program, Mullen warned that an Israeli attack on Iran might lead to escalation and endanger the lives of Americans in the Persian Gulf "who are under the threat envelope right now." Such an "option generates a much higher level of risk in terms of outcomes in the region and it really concerns me." But he also said that Iran acquiring nuclear capabilities would "be very destabilizing" to the region, and "their neighbors are extremely concerned about it. I worry about the proliferation which would occur....It... dramatically increases the danger in the region." Mullen warned that, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the U.S. might take military action. Though America's ground forces are "stretched" in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has a "very strong" strategic reserve in the air force and the navy, he noted. Mullen said that he and Ashkenazi are "by and large" in agreement on Iran's progress toward obtaining nuclear weapons - namely, that it will not happen before 2010 - and that any discrepancies between the Israeli and American estimates are insignificant. "I fundamentally believe that the Iranians are on a path to [develop a nuclear weapon]. Almost halfway through 2009, 2010 isn't so far away." He said the two men have been in agreement on this issue for the "better part of the last six months or so. There was a time that we weren't, but we've actually worked pretty hard to understand where we both are and so I think generally, we're in agreement."
Last summer, Mullen visited Israel and warned the IDF about the dangers of a military attack on Iran. Shortly after his return, on July 2, he was asked at a Pentagon press conference, "How concerned are you ... that Israel may undertake a unilateral strike against Iran by the end of the year?" Mullen said, "My strong preference, here, is to handle all of this diplomatically…as opposed to any kind of strike occurring," he answered. "This is a very unstable part of the world. And I don't need it to be more unstable." Mullen refused to talk specifically about what was said in his talks with the Israelis, but he made it clear wants to avoid military confrontation. "From the United States' perspective, the United States' military perspective in particular, …opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us. That doesn't mean we don't have capacity or reserve. But that would really be very challenging and also the consequences of that sometimes are very difficult to predict."