Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Wider Iranian Threat Seen on the Ground

This morning's Los Angeles Times reports that the conventional threat from Iran may be more immediate than the eventual development of nuclear weapons capabilities:

While the White House dwells on Iran's nuclear program, senior U.S. diplomats and military officers fear that an incident on the ground in Iraq is a more likely trigger for a possible confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

In one sign of their concern, U.S. military policymakers are weighing whether to release some of the Iranian personnel they have taken into custody in Iraq. Doing so could reduce the risk that radical Iranian elements might seize U.S. military or diplomatic personnel to retaliate, thus raising the danger of an escalation, a senior Defense official said.

The Bush administration has charged that Iran is funding anti-American fighters in Iraq and sending in sophisticated explosives to bleed the U.S. mission, although some of the administration's charges are disputed by Iraqis as well as the Iranians. Still, the diplomatic and military officials say they fear that the overreaching of a confident Iran, combined with growing U.S. frustrations, could set off a dangerous collision.

An unintended clash over Iraq "is very much on people's minds," said an American diplomat, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly express his views.

A U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure, despite recent heated rhetoric from the White House, today "seems more remote," he added.

An on-the-ground clash could be sparked, say current and former officials, by a confrontation along the 900-mile-long border between Iran and Iraq, or in the waters of the Persian Gulf. Or it could be ignited over one of the periodic U.S. attempts to arrest those the Americans assert are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iraq.

The U.S. military might also retaliate if a bombing in Iraq killed a large number of U.S. troops and there was clear evidence of Iranian involvement, U.S. officials have warned.

One senior U.S. military official said the risk of war was now ever present in the Persian Gulf region. He described it as a "sleeping dog" that could be all too easily roused.

This current of thinking appears to be widely shared among many operational-level U.S. diplomats and military officers. Though these American officials are not among the handful of senior aides with whom President Bush consults in making final policy decisions on Iran, they are nonetheless influential as debate continues between hawks and moderates on how to handle the issue.

Many of them judge a U.S. attack on the Iranian nuclear program less likely because of the administration's stated emphasis on diplomacy, the strained condition of the U.S. military, and worries that an attack could set off Iranian retaliation without halting Tehran's nuclear program for long.

In the Pentagon, the shift in thinking has occurred in part because many in the department's leadership -- including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates -- have concluded that a strike against suspected Iranian nuclear sites could be counterproductive, senior Defense officials said.

Washington charges that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, whereas Tehran says it is seeking to produce nuclear energy for civilian purposes.

Gates believes that bombing the nuclear sites would probably slow but not stop the Iranian nuclear effort while building domestic support for the program in Iran and undermining the international diplomatic effort to pressure Tehran to give up its suspected nuclear ambitions, said the senior Defense Department official.

"The nuclear program is still clearly years down the road," the official added.

"The more immediate threat is Iranian meddling and arms supplies into Iraq."

J. Scott Carpenter, a former top State Department official in the Bush administration now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that despite warnings from some quarters that the administration was close to launching an attack on the nuclear facilities, "there is a lot of trepidation and circumspection" within the corridors of Washington power.

On the other hand, the risk of a collision on the ground in Iraq has been growing since January, when Bush condemned Iran's activities in Iraq, threatened to destroy Iranian networks he said were providing military gear to anti-U.S. forces, and dispatched additional warships and other military hardware to the region.

Suddenly, U.S. officials who had been complaining publicly that Iran was broadly meddling were now accusing Tehran of responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops. They focused especially on the activities of the Quds Force, an elite and ideologically motivated unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps that the U.S. believes has sent hundreds of members across the porous border with Iraq to help train and provide weaponry to anti-American militias.

U.S. intelligence officials continue to track the flow of weapons they say come from Iran, and believe that in addition to much-publicized explosively formed projectiles -- roadside bombs that can penetrate armored vehicles -- Iran is supplying rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles and large rocket launchers, according to a senior military official in Baghdad.
I've noted previously that an attack on Iran is not imminent, despite left-wing claims to the contrary.

But as this article indicates, U.S. and Iranian interests are increasingly at odds. With our continued success in Iraq, Americans now have the best chance in recent years to turn the tide against Iranian aggression there, and throughout the Middle East as well.