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.
However, U.S. military officials have provided limited evidence of these charges, and some outside analysts and foreign officials remain dubious of the extent of Tehran’s involvement.
Military officials said U.S. concern about Iranian motives increased after members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps seized 15 British sailors and marines at gunpoint March 23 on disputed charges that they were in Iranian coastal waters.
Although the British personnel were released after 13 days, the incident convinced the U.S. military that Tehran was willing to break international rules, the senior officer said. U.S. military commanders have since reviewed many of their procedures in an attempt to prevent American military personnel from falling into a similar situation.
The senior U.S. military official said that any American forces threatened with capture would be under orders to fight back, because capture would put their lives at risk.
U.S. Navy officials worry in particular about the Quds Force, which they say is expanding a fleet of more than 1,000 small attack boats, and which is separate from the normal chain of command of the Iranian navy. They say the force, which is not believed to be under the full control of the Iranian leadership, could mount small-scale but provocative attacks.
U.S. forces are themselves involved in high-risk operations considered provocative by Iranians and critics of the U.S. In January, when U.S. forces seized five Iranians from Iran’s northern consular office in Irbil, Iraq, their real goal was to pick up a senior official of the Revolutionary Guard Corps who they believed was with the group, according to two former U.S. officials.
If they had captured a senior official of the guard, “it would have raised the ante pretty high with the Iranians,” said Bruce Riedel, a longtime CIA analyst and a former White House National Security Council aide now with the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
“The risk is that events on the ground can get out of the control of policy planners in Washington or Tehran and can create explosive situations that may go further than anyone on either side wanted,” Riedel said.
Former officials say one goal of U.S. operations in Iraq is to provide convincing proof to an outside world that is often skeptical of American warnings about Tehran. But such an operation entails risks, analysts say.
The Pentagon has insisted on keeping the five Iranians in jail all year, despite the protests of Iranian and Iraqi officials, and over the urgings of some State Department officials and U.S. allies.
U.S. officials maintain that the five Iranians taken captive in Irbil were members of Iran’s Quds Force, but Iraqi and Iranian officials insist they were credentialed diplomats.
The American military arrested a sixth Iranian in northern Iraq in September, saying he also was a Quds Force member who had supplied weapons and money to insurgents; Iraqis and Iranians said he was part of a business delegation traveling with the knowledge of the Iraqi government. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has demanded his release.
The Irbil operation was revealed because of a leak to the news media from an Iraqi source, and U.S. officials have hinted that more such operations are going on out of public view.
But U.S. officials appear to be coming to the conclusion that it is not worth holding some of the less valuable captives if it risks retaliation.
“It might be useful to cut them loose so [the Iranians] don’t have an excuse to pick up someone as a bargaining chip,” said the senior Defense official.
The senior military leadership also seems focused on the risks of retaliation in other ways.
Although some lawmakers and conservative commentators have been proposing attacks on Iranian armament supply lines and training camps within Iran, some senior Pentagon leaders are cool to the suggestions.
The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, who has privately weighed in against an attack on Iranian nuclear sites, also in his first weeks has voiced opposition to striking supply lines inside Iran, saying interdiction efforts within Iraq are sufficient.
“I just don’t think there’s any stomach for it, and there’s no need for it right now,” said one official familiar with Mullen’s thinking.
Pentagon officials are hoping for a continuation of a recent gradual decline in attacks from Iranian-backed groups, notably the Shiite militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr. Officials aren’t sure why there has been a falloff, but they hope it means that Iran has heard their warnings.
Nevertheless, American officials say they remain keenly aware of the vulnerability of their 160,000 troops in Iraq and the 27,000 U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.
“The military is going to be cautious about going after Iranians in Iraq, operations on the border or training camps in Iran itself,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst now at the Saban Center. “I think they realize this could escalate; it’s the kind of war the military itself doesn’t want.”