A key objection to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on fear for the future of the region where Saddam Hussein had held an uneasy balance by battling Iran and curtailing its influence.
Now, Iran clearly is flexing considerable muscle in the region.
What isn’t clear is how the United States will respond as time runs out for President Bush to make the military strike he has vaguely threatened for years against Iran.
For weeks, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and top U.S. military officials have warned that Iran is a significant and growing threat to American troops, the war effort in Iraq, the broader Middle East and also Afghanistan.
On Friday, U.S. Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen accused Iran in a televised news briefing of increasing its shipments of weapons to militants in Iraq and also equipping the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Reserve capability noted
Mullen stressed that the United States is pursuing non-military responses and that adding a third conflict to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “would be extremely stressing for us.” But he also said military action remains one of the options, and he added: “I have reserve capability, in particularly our Navy and our Air Force, not just there but available globally. So it would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capability.”
It was part of a series of unusual public accusations and warnings U.S. military leaders have issued recently, saying they have new evidence of Iranian-backed attacks on U.S. troops as part of a broader effort to destabilize Iraq, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Military officials said there was no concerted U.S. campaign to intensify pressure on Iran, but, taken together, the remarks represent a shift in the military’s thinking, the Times reported.
The background for the military’s stepped up rhetoric was laid down in February in a paper issued by Frederick Kagan and others at the American Enterprise Institute. Kagan, a military historian, has influenced Bush’s policies over the years. He was among the conservatives who called in 2001 for forcefully removing Saddam from Iraq, and more recently for the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq.
In the paper, Kagan cites “mounting evidence of Iranian support for Shia and Sunni groups fighting American troops in Iraq.” He also refers to “sporadic reports of similar Iranian support to the Taliban in Afghanistan,” and “Iran’s continued support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups.”
Nuclear interest raises the stakes
Add Iran’s interest in nuclear weapons to the mix, and Kagan concludes: “Much as Americans might desire to avoid war with Iran, continued Iranian intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East might ultimately make that option less repulsive than the alternatives. Western democracies do not go to war because they want to — they go to war when they determine that they have no other choice.”
Meanwhile, Bush cited Iran two weeks ago as a key reason for halting further withdrawals of American troops in Iraq after the level reaches 140,000 this summer. He predicted that a U.S. withdrawal would embolden Iran’s “radical leaders and fuel their ambitions to dominate the region.”
Bush said America seeks peace with Iran, but warned that if the regime in Tehran continued “to arm and train and fund illegal militant groups … America will act to protect our interests, and our troops, and our Iraqi partners.”
While Bush and his backers ratcheted up the pressure on Iran, the New York Times offered a far more nuanced view in an in-depth report last week about Iranian involvement in training and arming fighters in Iraq.
A different view of Iran’s actions
“Some intelligence and administration officials said Iran seemed to have carefully calibrated its involvement in Iraq over the last year, in contrast to what President Bush and other American officials have publicly portrayed as an intensified Iranian role,” the newspaper said.
Despite an official Iranian pledge to stop the weapons flow into Iraq, arms shipments had continued, the Times learned in interviews with more than two dozen military, intelligence and administration officials. But the shipments had not necessarily increased as U.S. officials suggested they had.
“Iran, the officials said, has shifted tactics to distance itself from a direct role in Iraq since the American military captured 20 Iranian operatives inside Iraq in December 2006 and January 2007,” the Times reported.
Instead, Iran seems to have focused on training Iraqi Shiite fighters inside Iran while also retaining political and economic influence over a variety of Shiite factions, not just the most extremist militias. And “Iran has sought to spread its influence inside Iraq not only by its support to militias, officials said, but also through legitimate economic assistance, in particular across the oil-rich Shiite south,” the Times reported.
The administration’s focus on Iran has raised alarms among the war’s staunchest critics, who accuse the White House of overstating the threat and laying the groundwork for military action against Iran.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California who has called for opening talks with Iran, told the Times that while she believed there was evidence that Iran was aiding Shiite militias, she worried about the tenor of the administration’s latest warnings.
Saber rattling questioned
“This is not a new thing,” she said of Iran’s involvement. “Why all of a sudden do the sabers start to rattle?”
Because the Bush administration has not revealed its most recent evidence about the ebb and flow of Iranian arms into Iraq, precise answers to such questions remain elusive.
The administration may provide some answers in a public dossier that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior commander, is preparing on Iranian involvement in Iraq, the Times reported.
The widely expected document has been delayed while the government of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, confronts Iran diplomatically with new evidence of Iranian assistance to Shiite militias.
Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.