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September 21, 2006

Iran War, Diplomacy on Parallel Tracks

by Jim Lobe

If you're feeling increasingly confused about whether the administration of President George W. Bush is determined to go to war with Iran or whether it is instead truly committed to a diplomatic process with its European allies to reach some kind of modus vivendi, you're not alone.

On the one hand, a growing number of informed voices are arguing that the administration is simply going through the diplomatic motions in order to persuade domestic and international opinion that it had acted in good faith before it pulls the plug and launches attacks on Iran's suspected nuclear facilities and related targets some time before the end of Bush's term.

Among other evidence, including an account of the advanced state of war planning and actual preparations in this week's Time magazine, they point to a statement by Bush himself during an interview with a group of right-wing journalists last week as indicative of his real intentions.

"It's very important for the American people to see the president try to solve problems diplomatically before resorting to military force," Bush told the group in what neoconservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer characterized as an "unmistakable" signal that "an aerial attack on Iran's nuclear facilities lies just beyond the horizon of diplomacy."

On the other hand, a second group of analysts, also increasing in number, believes that the administration has effectively discarded the military option on Iran and has instead resigned itself to a protracted diplomatic process that will likely end in Washington's adoption of a "containment" strategy designed to curb Tehran's regional influence and delay as long as possible its acquisition of a nuclear-weapons capacity.

That was the conclusion of the Post's Glenn Kessler in an analysis published after Bush's speech to the UN General Assembly Tuesday.

"With the United States ensnared in an increasingly difficult campaign in Iraq, war is no longer a viable option," he wrote, noting the administration's apparent acquiescence in the passing of an end-of-August Security Council deadline for Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment operations.

Kessler was in part echoing David Ignatius, a longtime Middle East specialist at the Post, who, after a one-on-one interview with Bush last week, suggested not only that Bush is committed to a diplomatic solution, but may also be prepared to recognize Iran's regional security interests.

"[He] made clear that the administration wants a diplomatic solution to the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program – one that is premised on an American recognition of Iran's role as an important nation in the Middle East," Ignatius wrote.

While it would appear difficult to reconcile these apparently opposing views of Bush's intentions, they can perhaps be best explained by the ongoing conflict within the administration between a familiar group of hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney on the one hand, and a realist faction led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"Faced with internecine conflicts of this sort, President Bush has a striking tendency to avoid making a decision and to let the factions fight it out," according to Fred Kaplan, the national-security correspondent for Slate, the online magazine.

"It's possible, in other words, that the administration is playing both approaches – mobilizing as a tool of diplomatic pressure and mobilizing as an act of impending warfare – not as a coordinated strategy but as parallel actions, each of which will follow its inexorable course."

Indeed, some of the evidence marshaled by Ignatius and others in recent weeks in support of their view that Bush is committed to a diplomatic solution suggests that Bush has given Rice considerably more flexibility in dealing with Iran – even if indirectly through the Europeans – than he ever considered giving her predecessor, Colin Powell.

Thus, soon after taking office in early 2005, Rice offered official U.S. backing to European efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, something Powell had tried and failed to obtain. One year later, Bush gave her authority to offer direct talks with Iran if Tehran agreed to an indefinite suspension of its uranium-enrichment activities, an offer denounced as "appeasement" by neoconservative hawks close to Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.

More recently, Bush, on Rice's recommendation, personally authorized the issuance of a visa to former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami for a series of unprecedented public appearances around the United States earlier this month – another action that drew howls of protest from the hawks. He also gave permission to a congressionally appointed task force on Iraq chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker to meet with a "high representative" of the Iranian government.

"I know that the more we can show the Iranian people the true intention of the American government," Bush told Ignatius last week, "the more likely it is that we will be able to reach a diplomatic solution to a difficult problem."

While these signals, as well as Washington's continued backing for European efforts to engage Iran despite the passage of last month's Security Council deadline, suggest that Bush is committed to diplomacy, however, the hawks have also been active.

According to Time, among other accounts, extensive planning and even preparations for war are well underway. The news weekly cited "Prepare to Deploy" orders that went to the Navy last week for warships, including minesweepers that would be needed to prevent a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, to be ready to move from their bases as of Oct. 1.

Ret. Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, a well-connected analyst who has been extensively involved in government war-gaming on Iran, reported this week that war plans have moved from the Pentagon to the White House, suggesting that preparations for an attack on Iran are much more advanced than previously assumed.

Gardiner, who just completed a report, "Considering the U.S. Military Option for Iran," for the New York-based Century Foundation, also told CNN that the evidence that military operations – confined mostly to intelligence gathering – have been underway inside Iran for "at least 18 months … is overwhelming."

At the same time, analysts who believe that the administration sees war as inevitable cite the creation by the Pentagon last spring – first reported by the Los Angeles Times – of a new office on Iran staffed by some of the same individuals who worked for the Office of Special Plans (OSP), a group of mainly political appointees that sent questionable and now discredited intelligence regarding Baghdad's alleged weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programs and ties to al-Qaeda directly to Cheney's office and the White House in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

"It seems like Iran is becoming the new Iraq," one unnamed "U.S. counter-terrorism official" told the same reporters from the McClatchy Newspapers (formerly Knight-Ridder) who first uncovered OSP's operations last week in an article entitled "In a Replay of Iraq, a Battle Is Brewing Over Intelligence on Iran."

One difference between Iran now and the run-up to Iraq, however, is that the hawks lack the same eagerness for war that they showed for in 2002 and 2003. While they saw the invasion of Iraq as a no-lose proposition, they clearly recognize that the costs of attacking Iran will be, in Krauthammer's words, "terrible" – yet slightly less than acquiescence to a nuclear-armed Tehran.

But, if Kaplan's thesis is indeed correct – that the two administration factions are pursuing parallel, rather than coordinated tracks – then the chances of a miscalculation by Tehran's leaders are likely to be enhanced.

They, after all, are likely to be at least as confused and divided by the maneuvering and speculation in Washington as the experts are becoming here.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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