On Iran, Bush Faces Haunting Echoes of Iraq

By DAVID E. SANGER

New York Times

January 27, 2007

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 — As President Bush and his aides calibrate how directly to confront Iran, they are discovering that both their words and their strategy are haunted by the echoes of four years ago — when their warnings of terrorist activity and nuclear ambitions were clearly a prelude to war.

This time, they insist, it is different.

“We’re not looking for a fight with Iran,” R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for policy and the chief negotiator on Iranian issues, said in an interview on Friday evening, just a few hours after Mr. Bush had repeated his warnings to Iran to halt “killing our soldiers” and to stop its drive for nuclear fuel.

Mr. Burns, citing the president’s words, insisted that Washington was committed to “a diplomatic path” — even as it executed a far more aggressive strategy, seizing Iranians in Iraq and attempting to starve Iran of the money it needs to revitalize a precious asset, its oil industry.

Mr. Burns argues that those are defensive steps that are not intended to provoke Iran, though there has been a vigorous behind-the-scenes debate in the administration over whether the more aggressive policy could provoke Iran to strike back. The State Department has tended to counsel caution, while some more hawkish aides in the Pentagon and the White House say the increase in American forces in Iraq could be neutered unless the American military forcefully pushes back against the Iranian aid to the militias.

To many in Washington, especially Mr. Bush’s Democratic critics, the new approach to Iran has all the hallmarks of an administration once again spoiling for a fight.

Some see an attempt to create a diversion, focusing the country’s attention away from a war gone bad in Iraq, and toward a country that has exploited America’s troubles to expand its influence. Others suspect an effort to shift the blame for the spiraling chaos in Iraq, as a steady flow of officials, from the C.I.A. director to the new secretary of defense, cite intelligence that Iranians are smuggling into Iraq sophisticated explosive devices and detailed plans to wipe out Sunni neighborhoods. So far, they have disclosed no evidence. Next week, American military officials are expected to make their most comprehensive case — based on materials seized in recent raids — that Iran’s elite Quds force is behind many of the most lethal attacks.

But as they present their evidence, some Bush administration officials concede they are confronting the bitter legacy of their prewar distortions of the intelligence in Iraq. When speaking under the condition of anonymity, they say the administration’s credibility has been deeply damaged, which would cast doubt on any attempt by Mr. Bush, for example, to back up his claim that Iran’s uranium enrichment program is intended for bomb production.

“It’s never stated explicitly, but clearly we can’t make the case about Iran’s intentions,” said a senior strategist for the Bush administration who joined it long after evidence surfaced that Iraq had none of the illicit weapons that the administration cited as a reason to go to war.

It has not helped that even as the administration is making its case against Iran, the perjury trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, was opening just a few blocks away.

The early testimony in that trial has laid bare again how Mr. Cheney, among others, carefully selected intelligence for use in a political campaign to make the case against Iraq. Now, several years later, the administration is paying the price in dealing with a country whose ability to project power and to build a sophisticated nuclear program is far greater than Saddam Hussein’s was in 2003.

The administration does not have definitive evidence that Iran is moving toward producing a nuclear bomb, but next week it will unveil what officials say is evidence of Iran’s meddling in Iraq.

In interviews over the past several weeks, officials from the Pentagon to the State Department to the White House insist that Mr. Bush’s goal in Iran is not to depose a government, Iraq-style, but rather to throw a series of brushback pitches.

Officials familiar with the intelligence prepared for Mr. Bush say American assessments conclude that Iran sees itself at the head of an alliance to drive the United States out of Iraq, and ultimately out of the Middle East. Other briefings have included assessments that Russia and China will never join meaningful economic sanctions against a country that they do business with, so if Mr. Bush wants to apply military and economic pressure, he must do so outside the United Nations.

One result was a strategy that Mr. Bush approved in the fall to push back on all fronts and to force Iran to recalculate what administration officials call its cost-benefit analysis for challenging the United States. The effort to stop European and Japanese banks from lending money to Iran’s oil sector is part of the equation. So is pushing down the price of oil, though administration officials grow silent when asked whether Mr. Cheney or others have discussed with Saudi Arabia the benefits of pumping enough oil to push the price down and deprive Iran of revenues.

But it is the military component of the strategy that carries the biggest risks. Two aircraft carriers and their accompanying battle groups were sent into the Persian Gulf, a senior military official said, “to remind the Iranians that we can focus on them, too.” American military forces in Iraq were authorized to move against Iranian operatives, though it is unclear what kind of evidence is needed, if any, that they are conspiring against American forces before military action is authorized.

American officials describe those measures as purely defensive. “We are definitely looking to protect our interests in the gulf, in Iraq itself, and to protect the lives of our soldiers,” said Mr. Burns, who insisted that there was no effort to stop Iran from ordinary exchanges with Iraq.

Yet administration officials clearly worry that the Iranians may not back down, and that a confrontation could build up — especially if a midlevel American commander or a member of Iran’s military or paramilitary forces in Iraq miscalculated. Both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have warned against that risk, officials say.

Administration officials say that while all of Mr. Bush’s advisers have signed on to the strategy of more forceful confrontation with Tehran, there is considerable debate about how far to push it. Some Iran experts at the State Department have warned that encounters between Americans and Iranians inside Iraq could strengthen the hand of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by allowing him to change the subject from his failure to produce jobs and the rising cost of nuclear defiance.

Over the longer run, there is a continuing debate about whether military action may some day be necessary to set back Iran’s nuclear activities. For now American officials say they do not believe they have a good set of targets or the ability to contain Iran’s reaction. “It’s not a question of ideology,” one senior military official said, refusing to talk on the record about military planning. “We simply don’t have the forces to deal with the reaction. They’re busy.”

At the Pentagon, military officials say there are still arguments over the rules for confronting Iranian operatives. Are they legitimate targets simply because they are identified as part of Iran’s military? Or do American forces need evidence that they are importing weapons or sowing chaos? Publicly, officials say the answers to those questions are classified. Privately, a senior official said, “It’s all still a matter of debate.”

In coming weeks, administration officials say, more escalation is likely. The Iranians have told the International Atomic Energy Agency that they will announce in February that they are beginning industrial-scale efforts to produce uranium. It will probably be years before they can produce enough fuel for a bomb.

But the debate over whether the United States should stick to diplomacy or take more forceful action is bound to begin right away, and will sound familiar. Democrats, even while accusing the administration of failing to engage with Iran, are positioning themselves to sound tough.

“To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep all options on the table,” former Senator John Edwards recently told an Israeli security conference. “Let me reiterate — all options.”

For Mr. Bush, this is not only about options but about legacy. Already bloodied in Iraq, he will come under increasing pressure to show that he has not left the United States weakened in the Middle East. He does not want to be remembered for leaving Iran more powerful than he found it when he came to office.