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Cooling The Clash With Iran

By David Ignatius
Sunday, September 16, 2007

Overarching the Middle East like a dark canopy is the growing confrontation between the United States and Iran. The test of wills is sometimes obscured by the daily war news from Iraq, but it has become the main event in the region -- carrying dangers of wider war and also some new opportunities for creative diplomacy.

The spillover of U.S.-Iranian tension was evident this summer when Israeli intelligence detected signs that Syria was mobilizing its military. The Israelis put their own forces on heightened alert. They also contacted Damascus through intermediaries to warn against miscalculation.

The surprising return message from Damascus was that the Syrians feared a chain of escalation that would begin with a U.S. attack on Iran. Damascus anticipated that Iran would retaliate by ordering its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, to launch rocket attacks on Israel; the Israelis in turn would attack Syria, which provides military and political support for Hezbollah. Israeli officials are said to have concluded that Damascus's war mobilization, while worrisome, was basically defensive.

Israel's volatile relationship with Syria was illustrated by reports that on Sept. 6 the Israelis bombed targets in northeastern Syria, possibly because they suspected the Syrians were importing nuclear materials from North Korea.

The most dangerous flash point is still Iraq. Military forces are engaged -- America's openly, Iran's clandestinely -- in a battle for influence over the shattered remnants of the Iraqi state. Indeed, now that the United States has co-opted Iraq's Sunnis, the new American priority is to prevent Iranian hegemony over Iraqi Shiites. U.S. officials say they have tried to reassure Iraqis that they won't fight a proxy war against Tehran on Iraqi territory. But that's precisely what has been happening in recent months.

This intensifying U.S.-Iranian confrontation was highlighted by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in interviews at The Post last week. Petraeus said U.S. troops had captured Qais Khazali, a leader of the "special groups" of the Mahdi Army, which is trained by the elite al-Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. According to Petraeus, when interrogators asked Khazali if he could have conducted his deadly attacks without Iranian support, the Shiite fighter responded, "Of course not!" Crocker said he has warned Iran's ambassador to Baghdad that "no Quds Force officer is going to be safe in Iraq."

So what are the diplomatic opportunities that might defuse this growing state of tension? I count four, and each of them would require the Bush administration to conduct more aggressive diplomacy in the Middle East:

  • Lebanon. The moment may finally be ripe for a bargain that ends the year-long standoff between Hezbollah and the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The opportunity for compromise would be agreement on a new president to replace Emile Lahoud. U.S. officials agree with most Lebanese that the right choice would be someone who isn't closely identified with Syria or with the United States. But it will take some deft maneuvering (and American help) to identify the right candidate and close the deal.

  • The Palestinian issue. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads back to the Middle East this week to coax Israelis and Palestinians toward agreement on a basic framework for a Palestinian state. The two sides are tantalizingly close, but they will need a strong push from Rice -- probably in the form of an American draft document that summarizes points of potential agreement. In taking that step, Rice would upset the Israelis, but if she can produce an agreement in principle that could be ratified at a regional conference in November, she would disarm Iran's most potent propaganda weapon.

  • Syria. Petraeus reckons that security assistance from Syria in recent weeks has cut the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq by nearly half. Many top U.S. military officers think the time to engage Syria is now; so do some senior Israeli officials. The Bush administration should be talking with Damascus, quietly.

  • The Persian Gulf. America's top military commanders in the Gulf favor an "incidents at sea" agreement with Iran that would reduce the danger of a confrontation. The big problem isn't the regular Iranian navy but the naval forces of the Revolutionary Guard. An unexpected opportunity for discussion occurred last weekend, when Central Command's naval chief, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, appeared on a panel with the brother of the commander of the Revolutionary Guard. This chance encounter at a Geneva meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies should be pursued.

    The United States and Iran are playing a game of "chicken" in the Middle East. A collision would be ruinous for both. Each side needs to be careful to avoid miscalculation and to act in ways that avert a crackup.

    The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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