Blowing hot and cold


Bush dismisses talk of military strike, while Ahmadinejad calls for dialogue.

UNITED States President George W. Bush and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have sparred – albeit separately on American television – as both sought to defuse speculation about an impending military confrontation between the two countries.

Mr Bush dismissed talk of a US military strike on Iran as political chatter. Mr Ahmadinejad, while insisting that turmoil in Iraq was bad for his country, said that dialogue – not force – was the solution for conflicts in the region.

Their comments on Monday night came a day after US military officials tried to link Iran to explosives and other weapons being used by Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq against American and Iraqi troops.

It was the first time that Bush administration officials have tried to make a public intelligence case against Iran.

Coming more than a year after Washington gathered such hard evidence, it fuelled concern that the US was softening world opinion for a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The US does not have a reason to go to war at this point. But by claiming that Iran is behind troop killings in Iraq, it could lay the basis for self-defence – drawing strong parallels to the rhetoric used by the administration in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But Mr Bush, in an interview with public affairs network C-Span, dismissed such speculation, and said that his aim was to show Iran that its activities in Iraq, and its drive to acquire a nuclear bomb, were counter-productive.

“The Iranian people are good, honest, decent people and they have got a government that is belligerent, loud, noisy, threatening – a government which is in defiance of the rest of the world and says, ‘We want a nuclear weapon’.

“So our objective is to keep the pressure, so rational folks will show up and say, it is not worth the isolation.”

Mr Bush’s comments seemed to indicate that the US is blowing “hot and cold” over Iran, perhaps deliberately, to confuse Teheran.

Another indication of this came when Gen Peter Race, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was no evidence the Iranian government was supplying Iraqi militants with lethal roadside bombs, contradicting US claims, while he was in Jakarta.

Over the past two months, the US appeared to be moving towards confrontation.

It has stationed more naval, air and anti-missile batteries off Iran’s coast; it has persuaded many international businesses to cut off dealings with Iran; and significantly, it has carried out raids on Iranians in Iraq to prevent them from aiding attacks against US forces.

A former senior Pentagon military official in the Bush administration told The Straits Times: “Such actions are a clear signal to the Iranians not to test our resolve. But the drumbeat for war is psychological warfare.

“In reality, we are not ready to fight another war because our forces are already stretched in Iraq. There is an element of bluff involved here, in the hope that Teheran will blink first and come to the drawing table on our terms. The problem is, they know we are playing a game of brinkmanship.”

He said Washington was facing pressure on several fronts to respond to Iran. First, the new US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, appeared intent on forging a strong case about Iranian activities in Iraq and has given the White House intelligence that has compelled Washington to act.

Second, hawks in the administration are concerned about Iran’s nuclear development.

Finally, the US has been responding to calls from Sunni Muslim leaders in the Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan – who fear a belligerent Iran might spread its influence through its fellow Shi’ite proxies in the region.

Senior intelligence sources in the Middle East told The Straits Times that al-Quds, the elite Iranian paramilitary force, is “deeply entrenched” in Iraq and continues to smuggle weapons into the country for Shi’ite militia groups.

Iran, however, is also facing pressure that is complicating its response to the US: There is growing public unease over the combative nature of President Ahmadinejad’s nuclear diplomacy.

Indeed, reports have suggested that for the first time since Iran resumed its uranium enrichment programme, there has been broad and open criticism of Mr Ahmadinejad’s defiance of the US and United Nations Security Council.

Many Iranians do not support an all-out confrontation.

That could explain the Iranian President’s moderate tone on Monday. But Iran, too, could be deliberately sending mixed signals.

Mr Bush’s comments seem to indicate that the US is sending mixed signals over Iran, perhaps deliberately, to confuse Teheran.

President Ahmadinejad’s moderate tone could be because many Iranians do not support an all-out confrontation.

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