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Petraeus terms military action in Iran "last resort"

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States should increase diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran to counter its rising influence, while retaining possible military action as a “last resort,” a top U.S. military officer said on Thursday.

Gen. David Petraeus, President George W. Bush’s nominee to oversee military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, told the Senate that current international pressure on Iran already appears to be “affecting the Iranian energy market and may convince Tehran to focus on longer-term, less malign interests.”

Petraeus, currently the U.S. commander in Iraq, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a confirmation hearing on his nomination to become head of U.S. Central Command.

“We should make every effort to engage by use of the whole of government, developing further leverage rather than simply targeting discrete threats,” Petraeus said in written answers to advance questions from the committee.

“At the same time, we should retain, as a last resort, the possibility of a range of military actions to counter Iran’s activities,” he said.

The Bush administration has long said it retains a military option on the table as it presses Iran on its nuclear program. Tehran says its nuclear program is for producing energy, but Western powers say Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapon.

Washington also accuses Tehran of supplying Iraqi Shi’ite militants with weapons and training for attacks on U.S. forces.

“Our efforts in regard to Iran must involve generating international cooperation and building regional consensus to counter malign Iranian influence and destabilizing activities, while also striving to promote more constructive engagement, if that is possible,” Petraeus said.

Central Command, known as Centcom, is responsible for U.S. military interests involving 27 countries including Iran, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon.

Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Frances Kerry