NEWS ANALYSIS: U.S. turns focus to Iran
By LOLITA C. BALDOR, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - Provocative words by President Bush and a fresh American military buildup in the Persian Gulf seem to mark a new focus on Iran that could signal another Cold War or even a deadly confrontation.
As the USS Stennis aircraft carrier began its journey to the Gulf on Tuesday, top administration officials traveling in the region defended the increased U.S. presence there as the only way to impress on Iran that the four-year slog in Iraq has not made America vulnerable.
Sending a second carrier to the Gulf for the first time since 2003 and positioning a Patriot missile battalion in the region, mark a broader U.S. stand in the Middle East at a time when diplomatic efforts with countries such as Iran and Syria have stalled.
It also puts U.S. policy at odds with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's recommendation that the administration should reach out to Iran and Syria to bring more regional support to Iraq.
Trita Parsi, an Iranian-born author and Middle East scholar, said the strategy will lead to an endless balance-of-power game that will drain American resources and undermine the U.S. position in the region.
"If we think that we, in the long-term, can keep a country like Iran constrained and contained, then we're asking for a fight," said Parsi, who is president of the National Iranian American Council. "Iran is a major power in that region. You cannot contain it without having a confrontation."
Bush set the tone during his prime-time speech last week, insisting the U.S. would not deal with countries that fund terrorism and vowing to "interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria" to Iraq terrorists.
As Bush was delivering his speech, U.S. forces led a raid on an Iranian government liaison office in Irbil in northern Iraq, arresting five Iranians the U.S. military said were connected to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard faction that funds and arms insurgents in Iraq.
Bush authorized U.S. raids against Iranian targets in Iraq several months ago, U.S. officials have said. The U.S. says Iran has been providing bombs and training in how to use them to anti-U.S. forces in Iraq.
"The United States is simply responding to Iranian activities that have been going on for a while now that threaten not just to destabilize the chance for Iraq to proceed to stability but also that endanger our forces," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week.
Iran and Syria both denied supporting fighters in Iraq. Iran denied the five were involved in financing and arming insurgents and called for their release along with compensation for damages.
Bush's broad salvo against Iran, and the accompanying military buildup, was defended by some as a necessary show of strength.
James Carafano, a Middle East scholar at the Heritage Foundation, likened it to the "muscular containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War."
"These are diplomatic moves to show Iran that the U.S. is serious about protecting its interests in the Gulf," said Carafano. He said the Iranians were feeling more empowered as they saw the U.S. get bogged down in Iraq and unable to muster an international effort to deter Tehran's nuclear program.
Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran who heads the VoteVets Action Fund, said such war games will fail because Iran knows the U.S. does not have the power to force regime change there. He said the move could signal a forthcoming strike against Iran or be an attempt to create enough leverage to force Tehran back into talks on its nuclear ambitions.
"There's no question it's a chicken game with Iran," he said. "By us playing more war games with them, it only gives them more reasons to tie us down in Iraq."
Members of Congress have also expressed concern and pressed the administration to say whether the U.S. military has plans to move into Iran or Syria, and if that could be done without congressional authorization. Administration officials have said diplomacy comes first, but have never ruled out attacks on Iran.
The escalation against Iran comes as polls show Americans are overwhelmingly unhappy with Bush's Iraq policy. Seventy percent oppose sending more troops to Iraq, as he intends to do, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll last week.
Rice, who has been meeting with Middle East leaders in the region, said the U.S. does not intend to cross the Iraq-Iran border to attack Iranians. But she said the beefed-up American presence is a response to Iranian activities that threaten to destabilize Iraq and the region.
Echoing her concerns, Defense Secretary Robert Gates - also traveling in the Middle East - said the U.S. is flexing its military might to underscore its long-term commitment to the region. He said the Iranians "clearly believe that we're tied down in Iraq, that they have the initiative, that they are in a position to press us in many ways."
Gates comments came as the Stennis pulled out of its home port in Washington and into the Pacific Ocean for the first leg of its journey to the Gulf. The Stennis, with about 3,200 sailors aboard, will stop first in San Diego to pick up its air wing, and then head to the Middle East to join the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower - more than doubling American firepower in the waters there.
A Patriot Missile air defense battalion from Fort Bliss, Texas, is heading to missile batteries in the Middle East. The Patriots, said military officials, are the world's best missile defense system, and positioning them will reassure U.S. allies they will be protected in the event of an Iranian ballistic missile threat.
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