THREADED through the reports of progress in Iraq by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker last week was the story of a larger failure: the inability of the United States and its allies to contain the growing aggressiveness of Iran. Since Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker last reported to Congress seven months ago, Iranian-backed militias and "special groups" in Iraq have evolved from a shadow force into the largest remaining threat to U.S. forces and the Iraqi government. It was Iranian-supplied rockets that slammed into the Green Zone in recent days and Iranian-trained militants who stiffened the resistance to Iraqi government forces trying to gain control over the southern city of Basra.
The proxy war in Iraq is just one front in a much larger Iranian offensive. Israel has been fighting an on-and-off battle in the Gaza Strip with Hamas cadres that also have been trained and equipped by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. In Lebanon the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement has paralyzed the government while rebuilding its own massive arsenal, which now includes tens of thousands of missiles. And on Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced another major acceleration in the country's nuclear program. He said 6,000 more centrifuges were being installed at an existing enrichment plant, which would give Iran the capacity to produce the core of a bomb in a matter of months.
The urgency and momentum of the Bush administration's multilateral diplomatic campaign against Iran drained away following the release in December of a National Intelligence Estimate that misleadingly emphasized Iran's reported decision to put one part of its nuclear program on hold. Israel's efforts to stop Hamas's buildup in Gaza have so far failed, and a United Nations force in Lebanon has never made a serious effort to prevent Hezbollah from reconstituting the military capacity it lost in a 2006 fight with Israel. Negotiations with Iran are on hold: Tehran has repeatedly put off a fourth round of talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Iraq.
What can be done? Mr. Crocker and Gen. Petraeus say that Iraqi leaders and much of the public have been angered by recent Iranian-sponsored attacks such as the rockets fired at the Green Zone, some of which fell in other neighborhoods and killed numerous civilians. Israel is hoping that by forging a peace deal with moderate Palestinian leaders it will wean the population of Gaza away from Hamas. In theory, a popular backlash against Iran's military adventurism could be nurtured across the Middle East.
It nevertheless is inevitable that Iran's proxies in Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon will have to be countered in part by military force, while diplomatic and economic pressure aimed at stopping Tehran's nuclear program is stepped up. Some observers interpreted the report of Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker as calculated to provide yet another excuse for keeping U.S. forces in Iraq. In fact, these two seasoned professionals were pointing at a growing menace that the Bush administration, and its successor, cannot afford to ignore.