Mixed Signals On Iran Attack

The chatter about a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran has been intensifying though President Bush emphasizes he will pursue diplomacy. But there are many in Israel who want to use military force as do some within the Bush administration.

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It seems to happen every few months, chatter about the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran. That talk has been intensifying once again. And today, in another sign of tension, Iran shut off several test missiles, missiles that have the range to reach Israel according to Iranian state television. The tests were part of maneuvers to demonstrate Iran's military readiness.

As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, the maneuvers and talk of war may be drowning out calls from Washington and Tehran for diplomacy.

MIKE SHUSTER: One after another, the missiles fired off their launching platforms on some dry, desolate Iranian plane as unidentified military personnel looked on from a distance. The meaning of the television pictures was unmistakable. Iran has weapons to use in response to any attack. The missile tests come just a day after a senior Iranian government official said Iran could strike Tel Aviv if Israel launched a military strike against nuclear targets in Iran.

And indeed, one of the missiles tested today was a Shahab-3, with a 1200-mile range that could strike targets in Israel. At the same time, there is a parallel theme emanating from Tehran and Washington, one that plays down the possibility of military attack and counterattack. Just yesterday, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said during a trip to Malaysia that the possibility of war was a joke.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: (Speaking in foreign language)

SHUSTER: We are doing our utmost to provide security and peace at an international level, Ahmadinejad said. Don't be worried, he insisted, there won't be any war in the future.

In Washington today, Undersecretary of State William Burns called the missile tests provocative, but he told a Congressional panel that Iran's nuclear program is progressing far slower than - in his words - its boasts, leaving time for diplomacy to work.

WILLIAM BURNS: We in the administration are fully committed to diplomacy with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue. We view the use of force as an option that's on the table but as a last resort, and no one underestimates the potential consequences of that kind of an option.

SHUSTER: Nevertheless, the pressure on the Bush administration to take military action has been growing. It's coming first from Israel. In June, Israel carried out air and sea exercises in the Mediterranean that were seen as a possible rehearsal for air strikes on Iran. A former Israeli army chief said recently, Israel had no choice but to attack Iran. And a few days ago, an Israeli cabinet minister, Isaac Herzog, suggested that diplomacy is only making matters worse.

ISAAC HERZOG: The international community is somewhat misled by an Iranian mode of negotiations and procrastination, kind of assuming that the world will not do anything. But the world will wake up one day, of course, with a massive Iranian nuclear armament at its doorstep. And clearly, it's not an imminent threat to Israel; it's an imminent threat to Europe, to Russia, to China, and to the rest of the world.

SHUSTER: Similar arguments are being made in the U.S. as well. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut urged the use of force on ABC's "This Week" just this past weekend.

(SOUNDBITE FROM SHOW "THIS WEEK")

JOE LIEBERMAN: The clock is ticking. Everybody says we can't let Iran become a nuclear power. I agree. But at some point, we, pursuant to United Nations Security Council resolutions, that - demand that Iran stop its nuclear enrichment program. They have to believe that we may take military action.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: We have just a couple of minutes left. I have to get to...

LIEBERMAN: I hope it never comes to that.

SHUSTER: And John Bolton, President Bush's former ambassador to the U.N., has been arguing in favor of U.S. or Israeli military action whenever he gets the chance. In a recent appearance on Fox News, Bolton made the case for an attack by the Israelis taking into account the U.S. presidential election.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS SHOW)

JOHN BOLTON: I think their calculation has to be they want support, at least after the fact, from the United States. And therefore, I think, doing it during President Bush's term makes a lot of sense. I don't think they'll do it before our election because you can't calculate what the impact would be. And, of course, after the election, they'll know who will be president and that would factor into their decision as well.

SHUSTER: But there are strong voices in the U.S. that do not favor the use of force against Iran. One is Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen said last week that opening up what he called a third front in the Middle East would be extremely stressful on the U.S. military and would further destabilize an already unstable Middle East.

MICHAEL MULLEN: Just about every move in that part of the world is a high risk move. That's why I think it's so important that international peace, the financial peace, the diplomatic peace, the economic peace, be brought to bear with a level of intensity that resolves this. My strong preference here is to handle all of this diplomatically. This is a very unstable part of the world and I don't need it to be more unstable.

SHUSTER: The key negotiating parties - Iran, the U.S. and the European Union, which has led talks with Iran - insist they want to use diplomacy to end this crisis. Another round of talks is expected later this month. Yet, as the voices for war get louder, the gap between Iran and its adversaries remains considerable. The prospects that negotiations really can solve the problem are uncertain at best.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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