President Bush staunchly defended a tough new administration policy on Iran that is drawing criticism at home and causing anxiety abroad, arguing Friday that it was only sensible for U.S. troops to move aggressively against Iranians who endangered them in Iraq.
Bush, appearing with military advisors at the White House, said the policy was not meant to spread U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into Iran, but asserted that U.S. troops had the right to seek out agents from Tehran, which he has accused of supporting Iraqi militants.
“It just make sense that if somebody is trying to harm our troops or stop us from achieving our goal, or killing innocent civilians in Iraq, that we will stop them,” Bush said.
The administration announced two weeks ago, as part of its new strategy on Iraq, that it would move more forcefully against Iranian and Syrian agents in Iraq. The White House also then moved Navy warships and fighter jets into the Persian Gulf in a display of determination to maintain its influence in the region.
The new push has been welcomed by some Sunni Arab countries that are worried about the rising influence of predominantly Shiite Iran, as well as by members of U.S. Congress from both parties who are nervous about the prospect that Tehran may acquire a nuclear weapon and possibly use it to threaten Israel.
But the aggressive approach has been unsettling to Shiite Arabs and Kurdish leaders in Iraq, as well as to others in the United States and Europe, who fear that the confrontational words and moves could escalate into military confrontation at a time when the Middle East is already torn by sectarian strife.
The administration’s tougher stance has raised questions on how far the United States plans to go to confront or control the estimated thousands of Iranians in Iraq, who include not only military and intelligence agents but also humanitarian workers, pilgrims and businesspeople.
Bush said suggestions that the administration wanted to widen its military campaign into Iran were “just not accurate.” He added that he would work to settle differences with Iran diplomatically. “And I believe we can succeed,” he said.
The president was joined in his warning to Tehran by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other administration officials, who were asked about a report that U.S. forces were given special orders to kill or capture Iranians found in Iraq. Administration officials said that U.S. forces had authority to do whatever was necessary to defend themselves in Iraq, but did not confirm the Washington Post report about special orders.
Gates said it was his “impression” that U.S. troops always had the authority to go after Iranian agents who were helping construct bombs in Iraq. He said U.S. forces would go after anyone trying to kill them by any means, including distributing parts to build the roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices.
“We are trying to uproot these networks that are planting IEDs that are causing 70% of our casualties,” he said. “And if you’re in Iraq and trying to kill our troops, then you should consider yourself a target.”
Gates reiterated that he believed Iranian military involvement could be countered in Iraq, without crossing the border. He agreed that Iran could be dealt with diplomatically, but said Americans were making clear that they would take the necessary steps to preserve “stability” in the Persian Gulf.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, also discussed the administration stance on Iran.
“If our troops get actionable intelligence that agents are going to cause our troops or Iraqi citizens harm, they’re going to take whatever force protections that are necessary,” he said.
Bush first outlined his harsher stance toward Iran on Jan. 10 as he unveiled a new strategy to address the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The latest administration policy has caused anxiety among Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite Arab leaders, who want to form closer ties with their larger and more industrialized neighbor, and fear they would be the losers in any conflict between the United States and Iran.
Iraqi political leaders say that the U.S. policy on Iran has strengthened the United States’ ties to Sunni Arab countries -- including Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states -- but has caused strains between those countries and Iraq.
Many of its Sunni Muslim neighbors consider Iraq a country controlled by the Shiite Muslim sect and have formed only limited diplomatic relations with Baghdad nearly four years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraqi officials have complained.
The new Bush administration policy also has drawn criticism from U.S. lawmakers, including Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
A former top aide for Middle East policy in the Clinton White House has told Congress that the policy on Iran stands to fail, as has Bush’s approach toward Iraq, and ignite wider conflict in the region.
Robert Malley, director for the Middle East program at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said that while the administration has refused direct talks with Iran and Syria, it has combined military threats toward Tehran with an attempt to build an anti-Iranian coalition of Sunni Arab governments.
“This approach runs the risk of promoting internecine conflict and, possibly, all-out and unwinnable civil wars in Lebanon and Palestine -- yet another series of catastrophes in the making,” Malley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
Some observers said the new policy reflected not only a U.S. desire to reassert itself at a moment of growing Iranian influence in the region, but also represented an attempt to solicit support at home for the administration’s approach at a time when the White House is trying to shore up its sagging popularity.
Toby Dodge of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said the confrontational U.S. tone toward Iran was likely to appeal to many in Congress.
“This is a way to explain to the U.S. public that Iran is partly to blame for Iraq’s problems,” he said. “It’s a way to rally public opinion and forge some kind of consensus.”
But Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, said that those who see a political motive in the new policy “just don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes and Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.