Skepticism Over Iraq Haunts U.S. Iran Policy

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007

The specter of the war in Iraq -- a war the Bush administration denied it was planning, supported by evidence that turned out to be false -- looms large over administration policy toward Iran.

Skeptical members of Congress have questioned administration charges of Tehran's support for Iraqi insurgents and President Bush's insistence that his plans for dealing with Iran remain purely diplomatic. The administration, conscious of its low credibility, believes it has gone out of its way to convince doubters that Iran is not Iraq all over again.

"No, no, no, no," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Monday in response to questions about whether the administration embellished evidence against Iran in a U.S. military briefing in Baghdad the previous day. "I'm almost ready to hit my head on the microphone."

Much as the Vietnam Syndrome dogged the foreign and military policies of a generation of U.S. presidents, the Iraq Syndrome has become an ever-present undercurrent in Washington. "Everyone is reliving the whole thing again in everything we do," said one administration official, referring to the tumultuous months surrounding the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

"In the old days, if the U.S. government had come out and said, 'We've got this, here's our assessment,' reasonable people would have taken it at face value," the official said of the Baghdad briefing. "That's never going to happen again."

In yesterday's White House news conference, Bush grappled with the issue head-on. "What makes you so certain," a reporter asked Bush, of the military's charge that "the highest levels of Tehran's government" are responsible for shipments of lethal weapons to Iraq for use against U.S. troops?

Bush contradicted the military's account, saying, "We don't know . . . whether the head leaders of Iran ordered" it.

"But here's my point," he added. "Either they knew or didn't know, and what matters is, is that [the weapons] they're there."

Yet, as questions that have peppered senior officials all week suggest, what matters in the post-Iraq invasion era is whether the administration can prove it.

The bottom line for many congressional Democrats and an increasing number of Republicans was reflected Tuesday by Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) during the House debate on the Iraq war. "The president said Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with al-Qaeda terrorists," Etheridge said. "I took the president at his word."

Burdened by its troubles in Iraq, the Bush administration is being doubly scrutinized over its policy toward Tehran. For weeks, despite occasional saber rattling, officials from the president on down have insisted there are no plans to attack Iran. Instead, they have said they are fully committed to a peaceful resolution of all outstanding grievances, including Iran's nuclear weapons activities, support for terrorists in Lebanon and support for insurgents in Iraq.

"We've been very careful in what we've said over the last few weeks," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, the administration's point man on Iran, said in an appearance yesterday at the Brookings Institution.

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