(CNSNews.com) - Both the White House, the State Department and various members of Congress have expressed concern about Iran helping Iraq fight Islamic terrorists, and on Sunday, the former chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff said he fears Iran more than he fears ISIS/ISIL.
"I do, actually," retired Admiral Mike Mullen told NBC's "Meet the Press" with Chuck Todd.
"I think Iran is a much more difficult challenge, an incredibly complex country that we don't understand very well," Mullen said. "We have had had no relations with them for 35 years."
Mullen said there is "enormous tension" in Iran as President Hassan Rouhani, a reformer, tries to move the country closer to the international community against the wishes of the "ideological faction," led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Todd asked Mullen if it's a "good thing or a bad thing" that Iran is such an important ally of Iraq as it tries to defeat ISIS.
"Well, I think it is -- it is a part of what is going on in Iraq that we have to accept," Mullen responded. "The number one priority there, I think, is to defeat ISIS. But I don't think we should ever lose sight of the fact that this Iranian regime as well as the IRGC (revolutionary guard) and specifically the leadership of the IRCG has committed a lot of terrorist activities in the region that actually led against us in the Iraq war, and killed many Americans.
"And so the -- the working together right now in a constructive way to eliminate the number one threat in Iraq, I don't think that opens the door for accepting who they are, and what they have done in the past.
"And once we're beyond ISIS, I think that certainly the relationship that we have with Iran from the standpoint of what they have done for so long will be based on the elimination of those kinds of terrorist activities that are evident throughout the region."
Mullen said he believes Iran would be involved in Iraq's affairs even if the U.S. had sent ground troops into the fight, something the Obama administration has refused to do.
NBC News reported on Sunday that Iranian-backed militias are "everywhere" in Iraq.
"Iran's role in Iraq has never been so visible," NBC News Chief Global Correspondent Bill Neely reported: "Their colors are everywhere, 20,000 men. And Qassim Soleimani, who is head of Iran's most elite forces in Tikrit, he's directing dozens of Iranian officers, operating drones, artillery and rocket systems."
Neely described what's happening as "a battle for regional dominance" between the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran, as well as a battle of Persians against Arabs.
'This is an Iraqi operation'
Last week, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was asked how President Obama views the Iranian-back militias now operating in Iraq against ISIS/ISIL:
"Well, first and foremost, it's important to recognize that this is an Iraqi operation...undertaken at the direction of Iraqi military leaders and in consultation with Iraq's political leaders," Earnest said.
He noted that Iraq's leader "took great care to ensure that this would be a multi-sectarian effort," involving both Shi'ites and Sunnis:
"And a commitment to that unified effort...is something that we want to see, not just in the political leadership, but also in the execution of this military operation. And Iran's involvement in this military operation should not change that in any way.
"We have been clear, and (Iraqi) Prime Minister Abadi has been clear, that this military operation should not and will not be used as an excuse for exacting sectarian revenge."
Earnest said the Obama administration is "pleased" that Iraqi security forces (with Iranian help) have made progress against ISIS/ISIL in Tikrit:
"So, I guess the point I'm trying to make here is that we are pleased that this operation seems to be advancing. That's a positive development, but, you know, we want to continue to make clear that it's a priority of the United States and our coalition partners that it needs to continue to be a priority of Prime Minister Abadi and other leaders in Iraq to ensure that this is an operation that advances their efforts to unify that country to take on ISIL."
Last Monday (March 9), State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is "aware" that "Iran has sent some operatives into Iraq that are training and advising some Iraqi Security Forces. We also know that Iran has provided some supplies, arms, ammunition and aircraft for Iraq's armed forces."
Psaki said the U.S. has been clear that Iraq "can best counter the threat from ISIL with a government and security forces that are inclusive, and if the interests of all groups are respected.
"With respect to the activities of any country in Iraq, including Iran, we believe strongly that Iraq's sovereignty must be respected and the government of Iraq must focus on strengthening its internal political and security situation -- institutions in an inclusive way. Clearly, that's what our focus is on. We're not coordinating with the Iranians; nothing has changed in that regard."
On March 7, Secretary of State John Kerry said the advance on Tikrit "is an Iraqi-designed and an Iraqi-controlled advance." He also said, "There are Sunni tribes involved in this effort. There are Iraqi armed forces involved. And yes, there are some militias involved, and yes, some of those militias are receiving direction from General Soleimani and from Iran. That’s a fact.
"But we’re not coordinating with them. We’re not discussing this with them. I think what General Dempsey said is a matter of pure common sense and fact. If Iran kills a bunch of ISIL/Daesh on the ground, and it serves the interests of Iraq and the rest of us, that might wind up helping, but it doesn’t mean that we accept in any way their behavior with respect to other things they’re doing in Yemen, in Beirut, in Damascus, elsewhere."