Bush Team Is Playing Hardball With Iran

There are two ways to look at U.S. diplomacy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran: either seeking engagement or roughing up Tehran a bit.

On one hand, the Bush administration--after controversial adjustments in policy--is publicly meeting one on one with Iranian officials at the highest level since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Last week's meeting between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Baghdad produced no breakthrough but was said to be businesslike.

It did mark an administration shift to accepting high-level direct meetings with Iran, if only on the subject of stabilizing a bleeding Iraq. Meanwhile, the State Department is also encouraging Iran to come to talks with Washington and five other governments on its nuclear programs and anything else it wishes to talk about, as long as it first suspends its nuclear fuel production.

On the other hand, U.S. forces are conducting tough sweeps against suspected Iranian networks in Iraq that are believed to be supplying improvised explosives responsible for many American deaths. The United States is detaining five Iranian officials in Iraq who are associated with the country's Revolutionary Guards. In May, two U.S. aircraft carriers and seven other warships entered the Persian Gulf in Washington's most visible effort to show American resolve to counter growing Iranian activity in the region.

And the administration has started working on rounding up support for a third round of United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran for its continuing nuclear work. That has triggered more vows of defiance by Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Both U.S. tracks are proceeding simultaneously, and the administration argues they are complementary. Indeed, U.S. officials say that their pushback strategy in Iraq and the Mideast broadly has halted the Iranians' own sense of ascendance that, in their view, would have put Washington at a disadvantage had talks on Iraq been held earlier.

"We need to achieve a better geopolitical and psychological balance--some deflation of the Iranians' self-confidence and bolstering of our friends' confidence in us--before going down this road" of bilateral political engagement, Peter Rodman, the former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Bush administration, wrote in a policy paper in May for the Brookings Institution, where he is now a senior fellow.

Even if Iran is feeling some heat in Iraq, where it is accused of arming and training some radical anti-U.S. Shiite militias, it is apparently doing some pushback of its own. In recent months, four Iranian-Americans are believed to have been arrested by security forces in Iran. Three are being charged by Iran with alleged spying or endangering national security--charges they and the U.S. government deny.

Iranian officials have said they suspect the Americans of attempting to foment a "velvet revolution," a nonviolent overthrow of the government. The Bush administration is spending $75 million for democracy-related programs involvingIran. Some analysts also suspect that Iran may be looking for bargaining chips to win the release of the Revolutionary Guards held in Iraq.

On the nuclear front, the pushback approach has not yet produced visible movement. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency last month issued a report confirming Iran's continued defiance of Security Council demands to stop enriching uranium and warning that its ability to monitor nuclear developments in Iran was deteriorating. In mid-May, Iran was said to be operating 1,312 centrifuges at its Natanz plant--significantly more than the last time the IAEA checked. Hundreds more are being readied for operation.

Talks between Iranian and European Union officials on the nuclear issue last week apparently made little, if any, progress. Iran is insisting that the Security Council send the issue back to the IAEA to be resolveand drop moves toward further sanctions--far short of the council's demand to end uranium enrichment and a nonstarter in the view of the Bush administration.

So far, Iran is producing only experimental quantitiesof low-enriched uranium suitable for electrical power generation. But the usually cautious IAEA chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, said he agreed with estimates that Iran could--if it chose to--produce a nuclear bomb in three to eight years, which is the CIA's estimate.

By Thomas Omestad