Story Highlights• Top U.S. naval commander in Gulf calls Iranian tone "bellicose, pugnacious"
• Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh calls Strait of Hormuz moves "troubling"
• White House criticizes those who doubt U.S. diplomatic sincerity
• Administration says rumors could undercut diplomatic efforts
By Barbara Starr
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House on Tuesday emphasized diplomacy over potential military action against Iran -- just a day after a top naval commander questioned the intentions behind Iran's recent exercises in the Persian Gulf.
Meeting with reporters at his headquarters in Bahrain on Monday, Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh, commander of the Fifth Fleet, said Iran is sending a message to the region that is "provocative and intimidating."
"Specifically, the concern with Iran is the combination of rhetoric and the exercises have taken on a very bellicose and pugnacious tone." (Watch why the admiral is concerned )
Walsh told reporters he was not trying to add to tensions with Iran, but said, "The trend line with Iran is one that is very concerning and troubling."
U.S. military officials also say Iranian patrol boats have probed defensive measures near Iraqi offshore oil terminals. The officials called those moves part of a continuing effort by Iran to raise its naval presence in the Gulf.
Top Bush administration officials, including President Bush, have denied the United States plans military action against Iran, and their complaints about Iranian meddling in Iraq are being met with doubt and alarm by many observers. (Watch an Iranian-American worry about U.S. intentions )
The Bush administration on Tuesday blasted those critics who say it's preparing for military action against Iran, warning that such speculation could undercut diplomatic efforts to break the impasse over Tehran's nuclear program. (Full story)
"It's just been an interesting tactic in terms of trying to create a sense of aggression on the part of this administration that is not only unwarranted, but unwelcome in terms of trying to do diplomatically what we think ought to be done with Iran," White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters.
Snow said "suspicion and skepticism" could hinder efforts to persuade Iran to halt its production of nuclear fuel, as the United Nations has demanded, "right after we've demonstrated the success of diplomacy in North Korea using the same means and methods that we're trying to employ with the Iranians."
"Therefore, it just strikes as curious why people persist in trying to stoke up rumors about something that simply isn't true," he said.
However, the Navy commander's remarks added new fuel to the rumors.
Walsh said the exercises and training by Iran that involve the areas around the Strait of Hormuz are his "greatest concern."
For Iran "to focus on the most constricted part of the gulf which serves as the economic artery to the community of nations is one that we can only conclude is an act done in provocation; to intimidate and to strike fear in those in the region," he said.
Walsh noted that a year ago he told reporters that the contacts the U.S. Navy had with the Iranians in the Persian Gulf were professional, but now the tone has changed.
"When they take that tone and they have very aggressive displays of a warlike bellicose sort of attitude, it's hard for me to arrive at that same characterization," he said.
Bush's January announcement that he had ordered a second aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf and would share Patriot air-defense missile systems with U.S. allies in the region raised fears that the Iraq war could spread. So have its accusations that Iran is supplying advanced explosives to Shiite Muslim militias inside Iraq.
American-led raids have led to the arrests of several Iranians, and the administration has authorized the use of deadly force against suspected Iranian agents in Iraq. But Snow said the issue is being dealt with as a force-protection measure within Iraq.
Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh has harsh words on Iran's intentions.