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On Course for Iran

Prepared by: Michael Moran
January 16, 2007

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Nearly a week since President Bush’s vow to “surge” U.S. forces into Baghdad, a surge of a different kind got underway in the direction of Iran. The carrier Stennis (NYT) and its battle group will join the USS Eisenhower and its escorts in the Arabian Sea by early February. Britain, too, has added naval forces (The Australian).

Bush’s otherwise Iraq-centric speech included explicit threats directed at Iran and Syria, accusing them of “allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory” and vowing to “destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” Asked for clarifications, administration officials say nothing is imminent, but nothing is ruled out, either. Is the administration planning to, as one op-ed writer put it, “exit Iraq through Iran?” (BosGlobe) Last week’s detention by U.S. forces of six alleged Iranian gunrunners (AP) at Tehran’s consulate in Irbil angered not only Tehran but the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, which appears eager to cultivate good relations with Iran (LAT)

Still, ambiguity remains the byword. All Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would really tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week on the topic is that nothing is off the table. Her appearance included a telling exchange with Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-DE), the panel’s chairman, in which Biden asserted the 2002 congressional authorization for war with Iraq would not cover (Haaretz) expanding the war to Iran. “I just want to set that marker,” Biden added. Not surprisingly, Rice declined to commit to that analysis.

More recently, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who counseled in favor of a more open diplomatic approach to Iran before joining the administration, told reporters during a visit to Brussels Monday he now views Iran’s recent behavior “in a very negative way” (WashTimes). Another official previously skeptical of Iran’s alleged support for violence in Iraq, CIA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden, recently told Congress intelligence he has seen changed his mind, giving him “the zeal of a convert” (NYT) on the issue.

At the very least, the latest policy shift in Washington forecloses on independent recommendations that Iran and Syria be engaged diplomatically. That idea, promoted most recently by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, rests on the hope that talks and incentives could play on mutual interests in stabilizing Iraq. Gates agreed with that premise in 2004 when he cochaired a CFR Independent Task Force on Iran. CFR President Richard N. Haass reiterated it this summer in a CFR.org interview.

Despite some UN Security Council action, efforts to curb Iran and Syria through multilateral pressure have been limited, with Tehran defying demands that it desist from enriching uranium, and Syria continuing to stymie (Daily Star) the investigation into its role in the death of former Lebanese President Rafik Hariri. A more unilateral approach now looms. Earlier this week, Washington imposed sanctions (FT) on an Iranian bank.

A wide range of experts at a day-long symposium on Iran last spring agreed with the assertions of CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon, a terrorism expert and former senior director for transnational threats at the National Security Council: “The moment the first U.S. warheads detonate over an Iranian nuclear installation, the United States will be at war (WashPost) with the Islamic Republic."

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