October surprise in Iran?

The Bush administration is set to take a tougher line with Tehran despite a lack of consensus among its allies.

By Simon Tisdall
Published August 10, 2004 12:12PM (EDT)

The U.S. charge sheet against Iran is lengthening almost by the day, presaging destabilizing confrontations this autumn and maybe a preelection October surprise.

The Bush administration is piling on the pressure over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. It maintains Tehran's decision to resume building uranium centrifuges wrecked a long-running European Union-led dialogue and is proof of bad faith.

The U.S. will ask a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Sept. 13 to declare Iran in breach of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, a prelude to seeking punitive U.N. sanctions.

Iran's insistence that it seeks nuclear power, not weapons, is scoffed at in Washington. John Bolton, the hawkish U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, says there is no doubt what Tehran is up to. He has hinted at using military force should the U.N. fail to act. "The U.S. and its allies must be willing to deploy more robust techniques" to halt nuclear proliferation, including "the disruption of procurement networks, sanctions and other means." No option was ruled out, he said last year.

Last month in Tokyo, Bolton upped the ante again, accusing Iran of collaborating with North Korea on ballistic missiles.

Israel, Washington's ally, has also been stoking the fire. It is suggested there that if the West fails to act against Iran in timely fashion, Israel could strike preemptively as it did against Iraq's nuclear facilities in 1981, although whether it has the capability to launch effective strikes is uncertain.

The U.S. has been pushing other countries to impose de facto punishment on Iran. Japan has been asked to cancel its $2 billion investment in the Azadegan oilfield, and Washington has urged Russia to halt the construction of a civilian reactor.

Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. national security adviser, said last weekend there was a new international willingness to confront Tehran, but declined to rule out unilateral action if others did not go along.

That will fuel speculation in Tehran and elsewhere that the Bush administration may resort to force, with or without Israel, ahead of November's election. Options include "surgical strikes" or covert action by special forces.

Such a move would be a high-risk gamble for George Bush. After the WMD fiasco, there would inevitably be questions about the accuracy of U.S. intelligence. In the past Iran has vowed to retaliate. Although it is unclear how it might do so, the mood in Tehran has hardened since the conservatives won fiddled elections last winter.

"I think we've finally got the world community to a place, the IAEA to a place, that it is worried and suspicious," Rice said in one of a string of interviews with CNN, Fox News and NBC television. She vowed to aim some "very tough resolutions" at Iran this autumn. "Iran will either be isolated or it will submit," she said.

Officials in London say she exaggerated the degree of unanimity on what to do next. Britain, France and Germany are the E.U. troika that has pursued a policy of "critical engagement" with Iran, despite U.S. misgivings.

Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, has invested considerably in resolving the issue, traveling to Tehran on several occasions. A diplomatic collapse would be a blow.

"There has been no such decision at all," a Foreign Office spokesman said yesterday of U.S. efforts to take the dispute to the U.N. Security Council. "The dialogue [with Iran] is ongoing and the government still believes that negotiation is the way forward at this stage." But Britain is in danger of being dragged down a path of confrontation that it does not want to travel.

Nuclear weapons are not Washington's only worry. The U.S. charges include Iran's perceived meddling in Iraq, where the blame for the surge in Shiite unrest is laid partly at Tehran's door. It also takes exception to Iran's ambiguous attitude to al-Qaida and Tehran's backing for anti-Israeli groups such as Hezbollah. The recent Thomas Kean report on 9/11 detailed unofficial links between some of the al-Qaida hijackers and Iran.

Investigations into other terrorist attacks since 9/11, including this year's Madrid bombings and failed plots in Paris and London, point to an Iran connection, though the extent of any government involvement is obscure.

While the Bush administration is set on a tougher line there is no consensus even in Washington on what to do.

A report by the independent Council on Foreign Relations says since Iran is not likely to implode anytime soon, the U.S. should start talking.

"Iran is experiencing a gradual process of internal change," the report says. "The urgency of U.S. concerns about Iran and the region mandate that the U.S. deal with the current regime [through] a compartmentalized process of dialogue, confidence building and incremental engagement."

That suggestion was mocked by a Wall Street Journal editorial as "appeasement." Hawks say the nuclear issue is too urgent to brook further delay. And therein lies the rub. Bringing Iran in from the cold is a time-consuming business. But the Bush administration, as usual, is in a hurry.

Simon Tisdall

MORE FROM Simon Tisdall

Related Topics ------------------------------------------