SCOTT SIMON, host:
All week, we've been looking at Iran's rising influence in the Middle East. Today, we examine the diplomatic maze being navigated by the U.S., which hasn't had normal relations with Iran for nearly three decades.
Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.
MICHELE KELEMEN: From his office on the State Department's seventh floor, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns sees many dangers of a rising Iran. He says Iran is funding Hezbollah, which is destabilizing Lebanon. It's supporting the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Shiite militias in Iraq.
Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs): Iran poses - for vital U.S. national security interests - the major challenge throughout the Middle East, and I think we have a fair degree of consensus here in Washington that we've got to use the ingenuity and diplomatic dexterity of the United States to contain them.
KELEMEN: The way the U.S. deals with Iran has been the subject of behind-the-scenes policy disputes. Now, with many of the more hardliners out of the administration, Burns says he runs an interagency group that focuses on diplomacy, not regime change.
But asked whether he, as a diplomat, sees himself actually going to Iran -well, that's a different story.
Mr. BURNS: It is the most unusual diplomatic relationship that we have with any country in the world. We talk with North Korea. We have a diplomatic mission in Cuba. We have a diplomatic mission in Burma. We haven't had normal diplomatic relations with Iran since Iran took our 52 hostages in 1979. I don't see in the short-term any reasonable expectation that the situation is going to improve.
KELEMEN: So for now, the U.S. and Iran talk only under certain circumstances, such as the meetings the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad has had with his Iranian counterpart to discuss security in Iraq. The rest of the diplomatic push is all about containment - a policy that has echoes of the Cold War.
The administration is also arming and supporting Arab allies - rivals of Iran -and talking about ways to bolster the forces of moderation against extremism. The problem is, many in the region see America's failed policies as the main reason for Iran's ascendancy, that's according to Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution.
Dr. KENNETH POLLACK (Director of Research, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution): We took down the Taliban and Saddam Hussein - Iran's two greatest foes. What's worse, we've created, you know, a failed state and a failing state in those two countries. We've also helped to create failed states or failing states with the Palestinians and in Lebanon to other arenas where the Iranians have been able to make inroads. And we've conducted ourselves in a way that's alienated much of the Middle East.
KELEMEN: Fixing these problems could make dealing with Iran a lot easier, he says, but in the meantime, tensions are mounting.
Dr. POLLACK: I don't actually think that the Bush administration wants to go to war with Iran - at least as a collective. That said, there's all kinds of room for miscalculation, especially because of what's going on in Iraq.
KELEMEN: U.S. military officials are angry that Iran appears to be shipping in explosives that are killing U.S. personnel in Iraq.
Former U.S. intelligence official Paul Pillar, now at Georgetown University, says the U.S. is vulnerable.
Prof. PAUL PILLAR (Security Studies, Georgetown University; Former U.S. National Intelligence Officer): Their ability to cause far more difficulty in Iraq than they have caused so far is one of the main ways in which they could and probably are deterring us from doing something more drastic like launching a military strike against Iran.
KELEMEN: He says this was one of the many issues that the Bush administration never thought through before toppling Saddam Hussein. Pillar was in government at that time doing intelligence analysis.
Prof. PILLAR: When the intelligence community offered its judgments as to some of the effects on regional alignments and diplomacy - and we were not asked for those judgments, we volunteered them. But, no, it does not seem to have been thought through before March 2003 just what Iran's role in this equation would be.
KELEMEN: As you U.S. diplomats try to counter Iran's influence, Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service has some words of caution - don't overstate the threat.
Mr. KENNETH KATZMAN (Iraq Expert, Congressional Research Service): I would argue that Iran's so-called ascendancy in the region is not only manageable, but it is reversible, if we understand and analyze Iran's vulnerabilities and weaknesses of which there are many.
KELEMEN: The Bush administration sees the economy as Iran's main weakness and is trying to persuade countries and banks around the world to stop doing business as usual with Tehran. This is one way the U.S. thinks it can contain Iran's influence and punish Iran for its nuclear program.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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