White House Approach to Iran Stirs Concerns

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The Bush administration has taken an increasingly aggressive stand against Iran. Officials say there is no intention of going to war, but all options are on the table. Is the U.S. considering a military strike?


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Bush administration has been taking an increasingly aggressive stand against Iran. Administration officials say there is no intention of going to war, but that all options are on the table. The recent developments have raised tensions further in the Middle East. There is also concern about what the administration hopes to achieve with Iran and what effect the policy would have in the region.

NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: To be sure, the Bush administration has always been vocal about its disapproval of Iran's nuclear ambitions and its meddling in neighboring Iraq. But on January 10th, when President Bush unveiled his latest strategy for Iraq, he signaled a new, tougher position on Iran.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence sharing and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies.

NORTHAM: Since then, administration officials have taken every opportunity to warn of what they call the growing Iranian threat. A few days after the president's address, U.S. soldiers arrested five Iranians during a raid on an Iranian government office in northern Iraq. They're still being held.

Gary Sick, a professor at Columbia University's Middle East Institute, says he's surprised how quickly the rhetoric and actions have developed. Sick says it's difficult to figure out the administration's strategy, but it appears it wants to accomplish two things.

Professor GARY SICK (Middle East Institute, Columbia University): First of all, to change the subject as much as possible from Iraq, which is a catastrophe, to Iran, which is not yet a catastrophe. And basically to distract, I think, attention from that and to change the subject.

NORTHAM: Sick says the other apparent goal is to help win back support of primarily Sunni allies in the Middle East - those that have watched as a Shiite government was installed in Iraq, a government that has ties to Iran. Sick says that has upset the balance in the region.

Prof. SICK: It's to build a new coalition where, basically, our friends were getting very shaky and were wondering what we were up to. They were in fact blaming us for consorting with the Shia and putting them in charge of the Middle East.

NORTHAM: Sick says the coalition the Americans are attempting to build may have short-term advantages, but in the long term, Sick worries it could divide the Middle East region into warring sectarian camps.

But the Bush administration and U.S. military commanders say increased Iranian involvement in Iraq means that the U.S. has to take a tougher stand to protect its troops and Iraqi civilians.

Professor Ali Ansari, the director of the Institute of Iranian Studies at Scotland's St. Andrews University, says the situation is so tense right now that even a simple misunderstanding could ignite the whole region.

Professor ALI ANSARI (Director of Institute of Iranian Studies, St. Andrews University): By raising the tension, by raising the level of armed forces in the region, even if both sides aren't interested in a military conflict, you're increasing the likelihood that an accident or escalation is going to take place.

NORTHAM: Ansari says the concern is the U.S. may provoke Iran enough into taking the first shot. Then the U.S. will have to react. The U.S. is undoubtedly the dominant military power, even if its forces are stretched thin in Iraq.

But Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Iran sees the U.S. as being vulnerable.

Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): The Iranian position is that the United States is a weakened power, it is a discredited power, and therefore American power is something that they don't seem to respect. It's dangerous for Iran to have this level of disregard for American power.

NORTHAM: Takeyh says for now Tehran is taking a low-key, almost passive-aggressive stand, most recently offering to provide Iraq financial and military aid and help with reconstruction.

Columbia University's Gary Sick says there is only so long Tehran can watch and do nothing while the U.S. increases its posture and rhetoric.

Prof. SICK: Our policy is quite provocative, and the Iranians have ways of reacting to this that are in many cases very unpleasant. If the Iranians really tried to organize the militias - instead of fighting the Sunnis to begin fighting the Americans full force - we would see an increase in American bloodshed in the region that really would be quite stunning.

NORTHAM: Sick says the cost of war with Iran would be incalculable and far more dangerous than the war in Iraq.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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