Taking Aim at Iran

Washington's think tanks and talking heads are abuzz about the prospects for war.

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Chief Warrant Officer Ernest Jackson looks out from the bridge of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz during a patrol this summer in the Persian Gulf, where the United States maintains a large Navy and Marine presence.

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Amid deepening frustration with Iran, calls for shifting Bush administration policy toward military strikes or other stronger actions are intensifying, including among some U.S. officials. On the Web and through more traditional means, a wave of commentary, analysis, and think-tank studies on Iran policy—along with rumor, speculation, and possible leaks about military preparations—has been building through the summer.

It remains unclear whether the louder buzz on Iran portends a decisive change in policy. But the up tempo has been widely noticed. "There seems," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, "a deliberate and concerted effort to bring the military option back to center stage."

To proponents of a harder line, the growing preoccupation with the Islamic Republic is a natural reaction to policies that are not working. As diplomacy plods along, Iran is continuing to assemble close to 3,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges as well as learning how to overcome the difficulties of producing fuel for nuclear reactors and, many suspect, nuclear bombs. Meanwhile, as the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, asserted on Capitol Hill last week, Iran is fighting a "proxy war" in Iraq by aiding Shiite extremists and providing weapons that are killing American troops.

To those opposed to military moves, the buzz sounds all too familiar. They hear an echo of the administration-inspired media churning preceding the March 2003 Iraq invasion, replete with many of the same personalities and groups active in that drama. This month, the man leading United Nations efforts to monitor Iran's nuclear programs, Mohamed ElBaradei, warned about the pounding of "war drums from those who are basically saying, 'The solution is to bomb Iran.'" ElBaradei added, "We do not see...a clear and present danger that requires that you go beyond diplomacy."

No change, for now. So far, there has been no breakthrough on either of the two distinct diplomatic tracks: U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at suspending Iran's nuclear programs, and bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks used to press Iran to stop its support for militias and other destabilizing actions in Iraq. Still, the administration publicly hews to the Security Council approach, coupling financial and political pressures now with the prospect of negotiations and incentives if Tehran stops making nuclear fuel. "We don't believe we've exhausted the diplomatic options," Nicholas Burns, a leading player on the issue who is the under secretary of state for political affairs, tells U.S. News. "Diplomacy is the best way to resolve this problem."

But the Security Council's unwillingness to pass a third, more biting sanctions resolution on Iran after months of U.S. lobbying has been a disappointment, policymakers acknowledge. As diplomacy plays out inconclusively, says another official, "there is an intensifying debate" about next steps. Future moves are likely to include a tighter financial squeeze on Iran organized outside of the United Nations and, eventually, presidential consideration of airstrikes. Says the official, "If the Iranians choose to push this all the way, they will reduce our alternatives."

President Bush's rhetoric on Iran has been heard by critics as trying to prepare the American public for military action. His address late last month to the American Legion convention drew comparisons to Vice President Dick Cheney's pre-Iraq war verbal blast against Saddam Hussein before the Veterans of Foreign Wars five years ago. Bush warned of a future Iran threatening a "nuclear holocaust," adding, "We will confront this danger before it is too late." He went on to cite increasing attacks by Iranian-supplied munitions in Iraq and vowed that Tehran "cannot escape responsibility...[for its] murderous activities."

Many analysts sensed something new in the president's warnings. "The administration is signaling that things could change," says James Phillips, a Middle East specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Iran is on a collision course with the United States." Yet, insists one senior official, Bush was not foreshadowing a departure from diplomacy. The upshot: "We're on the same road."