Last week in Baghdad, 30 Iranians were captured fighting for the militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. A few days earlier, two trucks transporting weapons for Sadr’s fighters were caught trying to drive into Iraq from Iran.
NBC reported recently that "thousands" of Iranian-funded fighters are operating in Iraq. And last month, the Sept. 11 commission, which investigated U.S. intelligence failures associated with the terrorist attacks, found that eight of the 19 hijackers were given safe passage through Tehran in 2000 and 2001.
Yet despite all of this damning behavior, a senior Bush administration official last month told the Financial Times, "Iran’s hard-line government has refrained from efforts to destabilize the new government in neighboring Iraq."
After the release of the Sept. 11 commission’s findings about the safe passage, President Bush responded unflappably to the critical accusation, saying the United States "will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved."
While the on-the-books policy of the current administration is regime change in Tehran, an overstretched military and an absence of good military options have led Bush to sound decidedly dovish. Rather than beating another war drum, he has made murmurs about the prospect of resumed relations in exchange for better Iranian behavior.
Just 10 weeks before the November election, Bush faces a problem: Iran, one of the three points on the axis of evil he described in his 2002 State of the Union address, is compounding headaches for the administration in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is now evidence of a link between the regime and Al Qaeda, throwing further doubt on why the Bush administration chose to strike at Saddam Hussein, rather than deal with the problem of the mullahs in Tehran.
And perhaps most menacingly of all, Iran is driving full speed ahead toward achieving a nuclear weapon. Senior U.S. officials all the way up to Bush have said the world cannot allow Iran to go nuclear, but such rhetoric has not proved powerful enough to halt programs in the past.
"We’ve heard this from the administration before. We’ve said, ‘We can’t allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.’ News flash: North Korea does have nuclear weapons," said Jon B. Wolfsthal, deputy director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice made the pledge most recently in an Aug. 8 interview with NBC’s "Meet the Press." "We cannot allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon," she said. "The president will look at all the tools that are available to him."
Yet at the moment, the United States, so consumed with the mess in Iraq, hardly has the stomach for another Middle East confrontation.
"The U.S. commitment in Iraq in terms of attention and troops has dramatically reduced our leverage over Iran," Wolfsthal said.
And in case anyone in Iran remained worried about the Bush administration getting tough, all they had to do was listen to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on Aug. 10. "We can’t do everything at once," the administration’s top hawk told the House Armed Services Committee, when asked how the United States is dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its support for terrorism.
With competing camps within the administration, some pushing for engagement, others for, at the very least, support for democracy advocates inside Iran, Washington seems hardly able to draft a coherent approach to Tehran. Gone — at least for now — is the neoconservative rhetoric that the U.S. superpower can go it alone.
Even though the Iranian nuclear threat is far more imminent than Iraq’s ever was, the United States is pursuing an internationalist approach, relying on the Europeans (who provide Iran with 40 percent of its imports and have more leverage) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — actors that the Bush administration ridiculed in the run-up to the Iraq war — to fix the problem.
Last October, the Europeans, bearing all kinds of carrots, thought they had won a pledge from the Iranians to halt their nuclear bid. The IAEA quickly found that Iran was continuing to manufacture centrifuges needed for uranium enrichment, the key to a nuclear warhead.
Now the United States is hoping the IAEA, which meets next month, will refer Iran’s nuclear violations to the U.N. Security Council. And there, the United States hopes the world will sanction Iran for its behavior.
Israel is hoping for that, too. Israeli officials say world attention to the Iranian nuclear problem has slowed the program a bit. Israel recently set back the date by which Iran will have a nuclear bomb to 2008.
But everyone all the way up to Bush knows that if diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to abandon the program fail, Israel will not wait until Iran has fissile material to take steps to thwart the program. The London Times reported last month that Israel had conducted military rehearsals for a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear power facility under construction at Bushehr.
"Israel will on no account permit Iranian reactors — especially the one being built in Bushehr with Russian help — to go critical," the Times quoted an Israeli defense source as saying. "If the worst comes to the worst and the international efforts fail, we are very confident we’ll be able to demolish the ayatollahs’ nuclear aspirations in one go."
Iran, which this month tested its long-range Shahab 3 missile — believed to be able to be tipped with a nuclear warhead — has pledged in turn to "wipe Israel off the map" if it strikes at its facilities. And Ayatollah Ali Hamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, recently warned it would strike at the "enemy’s" interests around the globe in retaliation, most likely a reference to soft targets like Jewish centers and Israeli embassies.
If Iran attains nuclear capability, the perceived threat to Israel may be greater than the actual one. "I think that the odds are they would not use it against Israel. The odds are against that they would contract out the nuclear technology to terrorists," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East specialist who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Speaking at a panel on Iran hosted by the Hudson Institute on Tuesday, Gerecht noted that while he believes "the Iranian regime is not a crazy regime" and therefore would not seek nuclear annihilation by striking Israel in a post-Sept. 11 world, people must be "very fearful" of the possibility of a nuclear-equipped, virulently anti-Israel Iran.
Ray Takeyh, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said on the same panel that Iran’s accelerated nuclear ambitions were motivated primarily by the "massive projection of American power on Iran’s periphery," not by a desire to strike Israel. "I never really believed that Iran wants nuclear weapons because of Israel. Israel has no territorial designs on Iran."
"Nobody is going to talk about what kind of option Israel has operationally," said David Ivry, who commanded the Israeli air force’s 1981 covert strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. In a telephone interview, Ivry said one of the keys to the 1981 raid was that "nobody [outside the planners] knew what [Israel’s] red line was.
"The red line was that we are going to attack when there is enriched uranium on its way to be put in the nuclear reactor," he explained. "The idea was such that we cannot attack the nuclear reactor after the enriched uranium was put in, because it would cause an environmental disaster."
"Now," Ivry said, speaking of Iran, "it is a bit different. There are more facilities. They are underground. You have to define a red line, and this should be done inside [the Israeli military establishment]."
Ivry, unlike the defense source quoted by the London Times, has no delusions that an Israeli military strike would wipe out Iran’s nuclear capability forever.
"Even when we attacked the nuclear reactor at Osirak, our intelligence said within three to five years they would have it again," Ivry said. "But the idea was such that we have to gain time…. You cannot destroy a nuclear program completely once a nation has a desire to have it. You’d need different leadership."
Zalman Shoval, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said that an Iranian nuke would be a problem for the entire world, not just Israel.
"If the Iranians actually developed nuclear weapons capability, of course Israel would be worried," Shoval said. "But I’m not sure Israel is the sole or even the main potential target. I’m not sure this is Iran’s most important geopolitical aim. What Iran wants to do is to be a regional superpower and control parts of the Middle East, and they apparently believe that having nuclear weapons will give them that ability."
"I’m not saying Israel couldn’t act," he added. "But Israel doesn’t want and doesn’t need to be in the forefront of acting."
One of the main obstacles in confronting Iran’s nuclear program is that the program is not centered at Bushehr, Wolfsthal said. Iran is working on producing highly enriched uranium using small gas centrifuges and cylinders at spots throughout the country. Wolfsthal said Iran has the science down and doesn’t need any additional technology from countries like Pakistan or Russia.
"Iran has become largely self-sufficient … we don’t have the ability to constrain them through an embargo or a blockade," he said.
Some experts in Washington predict a second Bush administration would be more robust in its approach to Iran, anything from more actively fomenting domestic dissent to a decapitating strike against the Iranian leadership, should the nuclear threat become critical.
A Kerry administration, some Democrats, in particular, say, may be better able to work with European allies to produce a diplomatic solution. What’s for certain, as Shoval noted, is that "despite the present imbroglio in Iraq, whoever wins in November will have to take the lead in dealing with it."