Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, posing a threat to its neighbours, and the United States is “very ready” to counter Iran should it make a move, a top U.S. military officer said today.

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reassured Persian Gulf nations nervous that an increasingly militarized government in Iran might try to start a war.

“The United States takes very seriously our security commitments in the Gulf region,” Adm. Mullen said following a meeting with Bahrain’s king. Bahrain, directly across the Gulf from Iran, is home to a large U.S. Navy base that would be on the front lines of any war with Iran.

“We’re very ready,” Adm. Mullen said, an unusually direct acknowledgment that the United States has contingency plans to counter Iran should it make a move. “There are real threats to peace and stability here, and we’ve made no secrets of our concerns about Iran.”

Iran denies it is seeking a nuclear weapon, and denies U.S. claims that it sponsors terrorists. Iran has wary relations with many of its neighbours, who are trading partners with the oil giant but distrust the theocratic government.

“Concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme are very real and inform a lot of the decision making” among Gulf nations, said Adam Ereli, the U.S. Ambassador in Bahrain.

The U.S. fears that if Iran masters the technical challenge of building a bomb it could set off a nuclear arms race around the Gulf.

“From my perspective I see Iran continuing on this path to develop nuclear weapons, and I believe that that development and achieving that goal would be very destabilising to the region,” Adm. Mullen said.

He gave no specifics about U.S. plans or defenses, but the Navy base is headquarters for ships and aircraft that monitor Iran and could be used to deter or defend against what military officials fear would be an attack that would come without warning. The base also houses Patriot missiles.

The U.S. keeps tabs on Iran through extensive air surveillance in the Gulf and from naval patrols that regularly engage in formal communication with Iranian ships.

“I would like someday to think that they would be responsible regional and international players as opposed to what they are right now,” Adm. Mullen added. “I just haven’t seen any steps taken in that regard.”

He said he supports the current strategy of applying economic and political sanctions on Iran to try to dissuade it from building a bomb, while engaging Iran in international negotiations over the scope of its nuclear programme. Iran claims it is seeking nuclear energy.

Adm. Mullen repeated his view that a pre-emptive military strike on Iran’s known nuclear facilities is a bad option that would set off “unintended consequences,” but one the United States reserves the right to use.

The Obama administration has said it will not allow Iran to become a nuclear weapons state but has never said exactly what steps it would take to prevent that.

“I’ve said all options have been on the table and remain on the table,” Adm. Mullen said.

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