WASHINGTON - Every effort should be made to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, but failing that, the world could live with a nuclear-armed regime in Tehran, a recently retired commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Monday.
John Abizaid, the retired Army general who headed Central Command for nearly four years, said he was confident that if Iran gained nuclear arms, the United States could deter it from using them.
"Iran is not a suicide nation," he said. "I mean, they may have some people in charge that don't appear to be rational, but I doubt that the Iranians intend to attack us with a nuclear weapon."
The Iranians are aware, he said, that the United States has a far superior military capability.
"I believe that we have the power to deter Iran, should it become nuclear," he said, referring to the theory that Iran would not risk a catastrophic retaliatory strike by using a nuclear weapon against the United States.
"There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran," Abizaid said in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. "Let's face it, we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China, and we're living with (other) nuclear powers as well."
He stressed that he was expressing his personal opinion and that none of his remarks were based on his previous experience with U.S. contingency plans for potential military action against Iran.
Abizaid stressed the dangers of allowing more and more nations to build a nuclear arsenal. And while he said it is likely that Iran will make a technological breakthrough to obtain a nuclear bomb, "it's not inevitable."
Iran says its nuclear program is strictly for energy resources, not to build weapons.
Abizaid suggested military action to pre-empt Iran's nuclear ambitions might not be the wisest course.
"War, in the state-to-state sense, in that part of the region would be devastating for everybody, and we should avoid it — in my mind — to every extent that we can," he said. "On the other hand, we can't allow the Iranians to continue to push in ways that are injurious to our vital interests."
He suggested that many in Iran — perhaps even some in the Tehran government — are open to cooperating with the West. The thrust of his remarks was a call for patience in dealing with Iran, which President Bush early in his first term labeled one of the "axis of evil" nations, along with North Korea and Iraq.
He said there is a basis for hope that Iran, over time, will move away from its current anti-Western stance.
Abizaid's comments appeared to represent a more accommodating and hopeful stance toward Iran than prevails in the White House, which speaks frequently of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions. The administration says it seeks a diplomatic solution to complaints about Iran's alleged support for terrorism and its nuclear program, amid persistent rumors of preparations for a U.S. military strike.
Abizaid expressed confidence that the United States and the world community can manage the Iran problem.
"I believe the United States, with our great military power, can contain Iran — that the United States can deliver clear messages to the Iranians that makes it clear to them that while they may develop one or two nuclear weapons they'll never be able to compete with us in our true military might and power," he said.
He described Iran's government as reckless, with ambitions to dominate the Middle East.
"We need to press the international community as hard as we possibly can, and the Iranians, to cease and desist on the development of a nuclear weapon and we should not preclude any option that we may have to deal with it," he said. He then added his remark about finding ways to live with a nuclear-armed Iran.
Abizaid made his remarks in response to questions from his audience after delivering remarks about the major strategic challenges in the Middle East and Central Asia — the region in which he commanded U.S. forces from July 2003 until February 2007, when he was replaced by Adm. William Fallon. The U.S. cut diplomatic relations with Iran shortly after the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Although both nations have made public and private attempts to improve relations, the Bush administration labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil," and Iranian leaders still refer to the United States as the Great Satan.