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.

Later this month, the U.N. Security Council will convene to judge Iranian compliance with a unanimous December resolution giving the nation until Feb. 21 to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing activities. Anticipating a negative finding, the administration is readying a new resolution to increase Iran's isolation. Among other measures, officials are considering charging Iran with violating U.N. resolutions that prohibit member countries from harboring or assisting known terrorists. Tehran has refused to hand over a number of senior al-Qaeda operatives it has claimed to be holding under "house arrest" for years.

This week, the administration plans to publicly present evidence of an Iranian role in supplying lethal weaponry to Shiite militias in Iraq. The weapons, including a sophisticated, armor-piercing explosive device, have been used almost exclusively against U.S. forces in Iraq and are considered responsible for numerous military deaths over the past two years. Gates said on Friday that Iran has been conclusively linked to the weapons through serial numbers and other markings on the bombs.

But initial plans to lay out a broad case of Iranian involvement in Iraq were shelved two weeks ago. Sources said policymakers acknowledged that they risked a repeat of the now-discredited weapons of mass destruction charges used to justify the Iraq invasion and wanted to avoid any embellishing. "We're not saying the Iranians pulled the trigger," one administration official said. "They provided the technology."

That expanded presentation would have appeared to contradict a new National Intelligence Estimate concluding that Iran, despite the attacks against U.S. forces, is not a significant factor in the sectarian violence in Baghdad.

Over the past two years, the administration has pursued different tracks to stymie increasingly bold Iranian activities. In March 2005, the United States signed on to an unsuccessful effort by Britain, France and Germany to begin negotiations with Iran over its nuclear enrichment activities. Although the administration offered early last year to open bilateral talks on Iraq between the United States and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad, it subsequently "pulled the plug" on the initiative, one official said, after the Iraqi government objected and Iran tried to expand a planned session to include all outstanding issues between the two countries.

The administration warned Iran against efforts to block oil-shipment lanes in the Persian Gulf. It publicly accused Iran of helping to instigate last summer's war between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah and of trying, through its support for Hezbollah, to overthrow the elected government in Beirut. It also escalated its allegations of Iranian interference in Iraq.

It was not until a series of high-level policy meetings last fall, which included the president, that the various tracks began to meld into a coordinated effort. "There was not a presidential directive," said a senior official who participated in the process, "but there was a very active interagency discussion. We talked about measures to take, and sequencing."

U.S. officials decided to push for a new U.N. Security Council resolution imposing a 60-day deadline for Iran to suspend nuclear activities or risk sanctions, and imposed unilateral restrictions on Iranian banks. They repeated the U.S. refusal to hold bilateral talks on the nuclear issue until Iran's program was ended.

Bush authorized U.S. military forces to capture and kill, if necessary, identified Iranian intelligence and paramilitary operatives in Iraq, and increased covert intelligence activities against Iranian-backed forces in Lebanon. A second carrier battle group was sent to the Persian Gulf region, while officials emphasized that it had no "offensive" mission against Iran. Cheney flew to Riyadh to consult with Saudi King Abdullah.

At the same time, the administration tried to increase its appeal to an Iranian public that it determined was increasingly disenchanted with Ahmadinejad. The State Department launched, for the first time since relations were severed in 1979, a series of educational and professional exchanges with Iran.

In December, a group of Iranian physicians and medical academics came to the United States for a three-week public health program. Last month, 20 American athletes and coaches from USA Wrestling were greeted with a standing ovation when they competed in the Takhti Cup in Bandar Abbas, Iran. A reciprocal trip by Iranian wrestlers is planned for spring, along with a visit by Iranian disaster-relief professionals.

As different elements of the policy were pulled together, the administration found that its European and Arab partners thought it had adopted the right approach and appeared to strengthen their own resolve to pressure Iran. Last month's decision to dial back the war rhetoric came in response to concerns at home and abroad that the administration's saber rattling was drowning out its more finely calibrated strategy.

"We truly believe this combination can succeed," a senior official said. "We're not saying that it will."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company