U.S. Keeps Pressure on Iran But Decreases Saber Rattling

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 11, 2007

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates insisted again Friday that, despite persistent reports to the contrary circulating in Washington and around the world, the United States is not planning military action against Iran.

"I don't know how many times the president, Secretary Rice and I have had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran," an exasperated Gates told reporters at a NATO meeting in Spain. In fact, he said, the administration has consciously tried to "tone down" its rhetoric on the subject.

Similar statements in recent weeks by President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others follow a high-level policy assessment in January that U.S. and multilateral pressure on Tehran, to the surprise of many in the administration, might be showing signs of progress.

Officials highlighted growing internal public and political criticism of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as the reemergence, after months of public silence, of Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. Larijani arrived in Munich yesterday for talks with European Union officials.

As a result, new talking points distributed to senior policymakers in the administration directed them to actively play down any suggestion of war planning.

Such demurrals are not meant to suggest that the administration will stop pressing Iran on several fronts or that it expects Iranian behavior to change soon. Warnings of new sanctions if Tehran does not suspend its nuclear enrichment program, the dispatch of a second carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf, presidential authorization to treat Iranian intelligence and paramilitary operatives in Iraq as "enemy combatants," and encouragement of Sunni Arab states to take a united stand against Iranian aggression are all designed to convince Tehran that "we have options" and are prepared to use them, a senior administration official said.

"We're a power, too," is the message to Tehran, the official said. "Your power is not unlimited. You can't go anywhere and do anything you want."

The changed rhetoric also stems from a growing foreign policy "maturity" within the administration, according to foreign diplomats and senior officials who agreed to discuss the issue on the condition of anonymity. They described a new attitude, born of the administration's awareness that the Iraq war has left it with a wide credibility gap at home and abroad and the realization that military action against Iran would strain U.S. capabilities, undercut other goals and possibly explode into a regional conflagration. Internal discussion has also focused on the likelihood that an attack could destroy whatever political plurality exists in Iran by uniting even those opposed to Ahmadinejad in a wave of anti-U.S. nationalism.

"It's very important that we proceed carefully, patiently and with some skill," said Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, who by all accounts is playing a lead role in formulating Iran policy. "We believe that diplomacy can succeed. We're focused on that. We're not focused on a military conflict with Iran."

Some senior administration officials still relish the notion of a direct confrontation. One ambassador in Washington said he was taken aback when John Hannah, Vice President Cheney's national security adviser, said during a recent meeting that the administration considers 2007 "the year of Iran" and indicated that a U.S. attack was a real possibility. Hannah declined to be interviewed for this article.

However, sources described agreement among the Bush administration and leading governments in Europe and the Middle East -- including those in Britain, France, Germany and Saudi Arabia -- over consistent but measured pressure on Tehran. They said close consultations, a stark contrast to deep divisions over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, have become self-reinforcing for Washington and its allies.

Upcoming events are likely to test U.S. patience. The Tehran government has promised a "significant" nuclear announcement today, following a 10-day celebration of the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Among the possibilities, U.S. officials and experts believe, is a declaration that Iran has moved from experimental to industrial-scale enrichment. Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful energy purposes, while the West has accused Tehran of secretly trying to build an atomic weapon.

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