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Strange bedfellows

The Nonwar War Against Iran
By Laura Rozen, National Journal
© National Journal Group Inc.
Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007

While the Iraq debate was gripping Washington over the past few weeks, the Bush administration was also shifting its policy toward neighboring Iran -- in a more confrontational direction.

The White House wants to use "all means short of war" to confront Iran.

U.S. officials, who asked not to be identified, say that the Iran policy has expanded from focusing chiefly on Iran's nuclear ambitions to challenging Tehran's suspected misbehavior across the Middle East. Indeed, one source said succinctly that the new policy is geared to "confront Iran in every way but direct armed conflict, using all means short of war."

The more aggressive policy is driven by several factors, U.S. officials say. The first is the emergence of a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Arab governments, plus Israel, all of which are alarmed at Iran's flexing of power in the region and, in particular, at Tehran-backed Hezbollah's efforts to bring down the government in Lebanon. In addition, this loose coalition fears Iran's possible role in supporting militant proxy groups that threaten to destabilize other countries, specifically Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Shiite groups in the Gulf States, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, the Bush administration and the American military in Iraq are increasingly concerned about what they see as a direct Iranian role in providing more-sophisticated armor-piercing explosive charges to militant groups that are attacking coalition forces in Iraq. These "shaped" charges multiply the killing power of the roadside bombs that detonate daily in Iraq.

Under the new policy, the United States will aggressively seek to expose and confront Iranian networks thought to be supplying radical proxies in Iraq, U.S. sources involved with the policy said. In addition, the U.S. is doubling its naval power in the Persian Gulf, considering covert ways to counter Hezbollah in Lebanon, and sending Patriot missiles to jittery allies in the Gulf. Bush administration officials are "projecting a lot of confrontation with Iran," says one American source privy to the administration's Iran policy debate who asked not to be further identified. "But they don't mean to signal war. They don't mean war. It's war by other means.

"For a long time, Americans were beating the nuclear weapons drum, and countries in the region were saying, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, we hear you, sure, whatever you say,' " he continued. "I think, in the region, while people were concerned about the nuclear issue, what really spooked the Arab regimes was the reaction after Hezbollah's triumph in Lebanon and the popular reaction in their own countries of infatuation with Hezbollah, and Iran's defiance."

The American source spoke shortly after U.S. forces had taken the dramatic step of raiding a quasi-official Iranian government outpost in Erbil, in Kurdish northern Iraq, where they seized computers and documents and detained five Iranians. The Iran office "was housing individuals believed to be closely associated to activities targeting Iraqi and coalition security forces and contributing to sectarian violence," a State Department official told National Journal.

Yet some sources indicate that elements inside the U.S. government -- in the U.S. intelligence community, in particular -- are trying to head off a possible administration move to escalate the confrontation with Iran over its suspected actions in Iraq. Some officials reportedly have doubts about the precise nature of the evidence indicating Iranian involvement in Iraq. For instance, after a highly publicized U.S. military raid on December 21 at the compound of Iraqi Shiite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, U.S. forces detained several Iranians who were meeting there. All of them were ultimately released and were returned to Iran, partly at the behest of the Iraqi government, which said it had invited the Iranians.

Contrary to some initial reports that American troops had found damning maps and documents on the detained Iranians, some U.S. government sources indicate that the Hakim raid did not produce definitive proof of Iranian involvement in supplying Iraqi militants. "They are trying to walk this back," one U.S. official said. "There are no smoking guns about Iran in Iraq," said another knowledgeable U.S. source. "That's the problem. Sort of like the WMD."

The U.S. actions at the Hakim compound and against the Iranian office in Erbil dramatically underscored President Bush's comments in his January 10 television address on Iraq in which he singled out Iran as providing "material support for attacks on American troops" in Iraq, and vowed to "seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."

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