President Bush has authorized U.S. forces in Iraq to take whatever actions are necessary to counter Iranian agents deemed a threat to American troops or the public at large, the White House said Friday.
The aggressive new policy came in response to intelligence that Iran is supporting terrorists inside Iraq and is providing bombs — known as improvised explosive devices — and other equipment to anti-U.S. insurgents.
"The president and his national security team over the last several months have continued to receive information that Iranians were supplying IED equipment and or training that was being used to harm American soldiers," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
"As a result American forces, when they receive actionable information, may take the steps necessary to protect themselves as well as the population," Johndroe said.
For more than a year, U.S. forces in Iraq have been catching Iranian agents, interviewing them and letting them go. A report in Friday's Washington Post says the administration is now convinced that was ineffective because Iran paid no penalty for its mischief.
As one senior administration official told the Post, "There were no costs for the Iranians. They are hurting our mission in Iraq, and we were bending over backwards not to fight back."
It is unknown whether U.S. forces have killed any Iranian operatives to date. Officials told the newspaper that about 150 Iranian intelligence officers, along with members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, are active inside Iraq, though there is no evidence that these Iranian operatives have directly attacked U.S. forces in Iraq, the officials said.
In a recent Senate hearing, CIA director Gen. Michael V. Hayden noted that for the past three years, Iran has offered Shiite militias weapons and intelligence training and said there was a "striking" amount of Iranian-supplied materiel used against U.S. troops.
"Iran seems to be conducting a foreign policy with a sense of dangerous triumphalism," Hayden said.
In addition to the stated goal of reducing violence in Iraq, the kill-or-capture order is aimed at reducing Iran's influence with Hamas and Hezbollah and among Shiites in western Afghanistan.
One senior official also told the Post that the Bush administration's plans contain five "theaters of interest" designed to target Iranian interests across the Middle East.
Mr. Bush referred to the new policy in his Jan. 10 address to the United States in which he announced a buildup of 21,500 troops in Iraq. He said the United States would confront Iran and Syria more vigorously.
"These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq," he said in that address. "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
While promising tougher action, the White House said the United States does not intend to cross the Iraq-Iran border to attack Iranians.
Friday with Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, newly confirmed by the Senate to command U.S. troops in Iraq, Mr. Bush was asked about stepped-up activities in Iraq against Iranian activities thought to be fueling the violence.
He defended the policy, but said it is no indication that the United States intends to expand the confrontation beyond Iraq's borders.
"That's a presumption that's simply not accurate," Mr. Bush said.
But added: "Our policy is going to be to protect our troops. It makes sense."
earlier this month after a raid on an Iranian government liaison office in northern Iraq. The move further frayed relations between the two countries, already tense because of U.S.-led efforts to force Tehran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.
The administration said at the time that U.S. forces entered an Iranian building in Kurdish-controlled Irbil because information linked it to Revolutionary Guards and other Iranian elements engaging in violent activities in Iraq.
But Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, contended the Iranians were working in a liaison office that had government approval and that the office was in the process of being approved as a consulate. In Iran, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the U.S. raid constituted an intervention in Iranian-Iraqi affairs.
Meanwhile, the United States and Europe are showing concern over reports that Iran is on the verge of launching it's most powerful missile into space attached with a satellite.
In the latest edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology, an Iranian-built space launcher has been built and "will liftoff soon" with a satellite, according to Alaoddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.
The U.S. believes Iran is using some derivation of its Shahab 3 missile, which, in its current form, can hit Israel, Saudi Arabia and southern Turkey from central Iran.
However, fears are that future upgrades in weapons technology will give Iran an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that features a range of approximately 2,500 miles.
The magazine reports that Iran's latest missile has strong resemblances to North Korea's missile program and experts fear Iran will eventually build a clone of North Korea's Taepodong 2C/3, which was tested last July.
The news of Iran's alleged attempt to launch a missile comes as U.N. officials said Friday that Iran plans to start installing thousands of centrifuges in an underground facility next month.
The move would pave the way to large-scale uranium enrichment, a potential way of making nuclear weapons.
The officials, who demanded anonymity because the information was confidential, emphasized that Iranian officials had not officially said the country would embark on the assembly of what will initially be 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz. But they said senior officials have informally told the International Atomic Energy Agency the work would start next month.
"The combined effort of U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding Iran's nuclear program, today's General Assembly resolution condemning Holocaust denials, and a confrontation with Iranian militants in Iraq, may create enough pressure on Ahmadinejad to back down," said CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk said of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "It also could lead to a dangerous military confrontation."