OpinionIran in the World PressDebate in Bush administration over Iran strategy

Debate in Bush administration over Iran strategy


New York Times: While scrutiny this week focused on the debate over troop strength, President Bush also used the occasion to turn up the pressure on Iran, using his speech on Thursday to stress the need to contain Iran as a major reason for the continued American presence in Iraq. The New York Times

Published: September 16, 2007

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 — While scrutiny this week focused on the debate over troop strength, President Bush also used the occasion to turn up the pressure on Iran, using his speech on Thursday to stress the need to contain Iran as a major reason for the continued American presence in Iraq.

The language in Mr. Bush’s speech reflected an intense and continuing struggle between factions within his administration over how aggressively to confront Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been arguing for a continuation of a diplomatic approach, while officials in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office advocate a much tougher view that seeks to isolate and contain Iran, and to include greater consideration of a military strike.

Mr. Bush’s language indicated that the debate, at least for now, might have tilted toward Mr. Cheney. By portraying the battle with Iran as one for supremacy in the Middle East, Mr. Bush turned up the rhetoric another, more bellicose, notch. “If we were to be driven out of Iraq, extremists of all strains would be emboldened,” Mr. Bush said. “Iran would benefit from the chaos and would be encouraged in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons and dominate the region.”

The tensions between Ms. Rice and Mr. Cheney have existed for a long time; they began during the administration’s first term, when, as national security adviser, she had to mediate turf battles between a coalition of Mr. Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the secretary of defense, and Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state.

Now, as secretary of state, Ms. Rice has increasingly come to reflect the more diplomatic view advocated by the State Department, which has pushed for a more restrained tone in America’s dealings with the world in general, and Iran in particular.

Mr. Cheney and hard-line hawks in his office, however, have become increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of progress in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, where Ms. Rice has advocated a diplomatic approach.

Allies of Mr. Cheney continue to say publicly that the United States should include regime change in Iran as a viable policy option, and have argued, privately, that the United States encourage Israel to consider a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The testimony this week of Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, that the diplomatic talks with Iran have done little to restrain what he called Iran’s “malign” influence in Iraq, also fueled the disquiet in Mr. Cheney’s office, one administration official said.

The debate between the factions will play out soon in a decision over whether to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, or a unit of it, a terrorist organization and subject to increased financial sanctions.

While some White House officials and some members of the vice president’s staff have been pushing to blacklist the entire Revolutionary Guard, administration officials said, officials at the State and Treasury Departments are pushing for a narrower approach that would list only the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, or perhaps, only companies and organizations with financial ties to that group. The designation would make it easier for the United States to block financial accounts and other assets controlled by the group.

The administration is still pressing ahead with other efforts to turn up the pressure on Iran. The State Department has asked top officials from the five other world powers seeking to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions to come to Washington on Sept. 21 for a meeting in which R. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, will press for stronger United Nations sanctions against Iran.

On Sept. 28, Ms. Rice will meet with her counterparts from Europe, Russia and China to discuss the Iran sanctions issue.

Beyond its nuclear program, Iran has emerged as an increasing source of trouble for the Bush administration, American officials say, by inflaming the insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza, where it has provided military and financial support to the militant Islamic group Hamas.

In its report to Congress on Friday, the administration accused Iran of providing Shiite militias with training, money and weapons, including rockets, mortars and explosively formed projectile devices, which the administration said accounted for an increased percentage of American combat deaths. The report said that “coalition and Iraqi operations against these groups, combined with a growing rejection of Shia violence by top Government of Iraq officials, has led to some progress in reducing violent attacks from Shia extremists.”

The American military in Iraq still has custody of several Iranian officials who were detained there on suspicion of involvement in providing aid to Shiite militias.

Iran’s government has denied the charges. Its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Friday that Mr. Bush’s Middle East policies had failed and that Mr. Bush would one day be put on trial for the “tragedies” he had created in Iraq.

But a belief has been growing in Iran, which administration officials have pointedly not tried to stem, that the Bush administration is considering military strikes against Iran. An Israeli airstrike in Syria last week kicked up speculation in the Iranian press that Israel, in alliance with the United States, was really trying to send a message to Iran that it could strike Iranian nuclear facilities if it chose to.

“If I were the Iranians, what I’d be freaked out about is that the other Arab states didn’t protest” the airstrike, said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Arab world nonreaction is a signal to Iran, that Arabs aren’t happy with Iran’s power and influence, so if the Israelis want to go and intimidate and violate the airspace of another Arab state that’s an ally of Iran, the other Arab states aren’t going to do anything.”

During the talks next week, the United States, France and Britain will try to get Russia, China and Germany to sign on to a stronger set of United Nations Security Council sanctions against members of Iran’s government.

The sanctions are aimed at getting Tehran to suspend its enrichment of uranium. The international efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been complicated by America’s conflict with Iran in Iraq, which Russia and some European countries argue should take a back seat to the nuclear issue.

Further complicating things has been a dispute over a pact reached last month between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency for Tehran to answer questions about an array of suspicious past nuclear activities.

Gregory L. Schulte, the American delegate to the agency, suggested that Tehran “has no intention of coming clean.”

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