Washington's Debate: What To Do With Iran?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks to the media during a news briefing upon his arrival at the Mehrabad airport in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Sept. 28, 2007, after his trip to New York for attending U.N. General Assembly.
An American strike on Iran would be "another disastrous foreign policy decision" for the United States, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson said Sunday on Face The Nation, after a report claimed that the Bush administration has ordered the Pentagon to update its attack plans.

"It would be enormously unwise for the Bush administration to start another war before ending this tragic war we're in today," Richardson told Bob Schieffer. "And it does sound like the administration is ramping up - you can just see it."

The White House has long claimed that Iran is secretly enriching uranium to build nuclear weapons, but U.S. officials have shifted their focus toward claims that Iran is supporting anti-American forces in neighboring Iraq.

While Iran denies both accusations, the U.S. Senate voted Wednesday 76-22 in favor of a resolution urging the State Department to designate Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.

The proposal attracted overwhelming bipartisan support, but a small group of Democrats said they feared labeling the state-sponsored organization a terrorist group could be interpreted as a congressional authorization of military force against Iran.

In a new article in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersch writes that the focus of the Pentagon's new plan is not Iran's nuclear facilities but other bases that allegedly send terrorists - and explosives - into Iraq, to kill Americans.

"The focus of the plans had been a broad bombing attack, with targets including Iran's known and suspected nuclear facilities and other military and infrastructure sites," Hersch writes. "Now the emphasis is on 'surgical' strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere, which, the Administration claims, have been the source of attacks on Americans in Iraq."

President Bush acknowledged the chance for military confrontation with Iranian forces in a speech last month, saying, "I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities."

But, in executives on Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "We still believe that the diplomatic track has legs and can still resolve this if we remain very tough on that track."

Rice also said, however, that the president hasn't taken the military option "off the table."

Two foreign policy experts who appeared on Face The Nation said that the debate over Iran was definitely heating up in Washington, but that no one seemed ready to take any military action.

"There's almost kind of a small hysteria in Washington about what we do with Iran," said Robin Wright, a Washington Post reporter who has written three books on Iran. "The reality is that largely because of Iraq and to a certain degree Afghanistan, we now find our selves in what is a kind of cold war with Iran for regional influence. And this is likely to define the region, I think, for the next decade."

But Wright said her sources in the Bush administration were telling her that "this talk right now is way ahead of where they actually are."

"We need to have an effective sanctions regime. We need to have one that actually bites," Danielle Pletka, who is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said. "We need to give a lot more effort to that before we begin to consider military operations, because they're not the silver bullet that some people want to suggest that they are."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly earlier in the week that his country would defy attempts to impose new sanctions by "arrogant powers" seeking to curb its nuclear program, accusing them of lying and imposing illegal penalties on his country.

As for Iranian activities in Iraq, Pletka said chaos in Iraq benefits the Iranians and Tehran would not want to see a stable Iraq as "either as a democracy or as a counterbalance to their own influence in the region."

Richardson said he would not threaten Iran with military strikes, but there were two issues on which the U.S. would be forced to deal with Iran.

"We cannot have Iran have nuclear weapons, but I believe we can work with them to develop a civilian nuclear fuel cycle, perhaps with the Russians," he said. "We cannot have them, obviously, continue helping the Revolutionary Guards in Iraq."

"But calling them names, labeling them terrorists, drawing up military options is just making the situation worse and inflaming the Muslim world at a time when we need in the Persian Gulf, in the Middle East, and in Iraq a political solution," Richardson said.

Richardson said if he were to become the president, he would engage Iran. "But I would go around Ahmadinejad," he said. "I would go to the moderate Muslim clerics, Islamic clerics. I would talk to students. I would talk to university professors, business leaders."