Anti-Iran sentiment hardening fast
Critics in Congress finger Iranian ties to Al Qaeda and influence in Iraq as cause for a tougher approach.
Iran's governing mullahs may feel uneasy at the prominent attention they are attracting in the US as the 9/11 investigations conclude.Skip to next paragraph
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But a bigger worry for them may well be the growing signs that the US Congress - even without the 9/11 reports of Iran's ties to Al Qaeda - is pressing for a tougher approach toward Tehran.
With US interests in a reformed Middle East as strong as ever - even with Saddam Hussein out of the picture - Iran is emerging as the new Satan for some forces in Washington. That is particularly true on Capitol Hill, where pro-Israel and anti-Iran hard-liners are calling for an Iran policy advocating regime change - much like what happened with Iraq in the late 1990s.
On the other side of the freshly roiling debate are promoters of engagement, including prominent figures who advocate dialogue to address the top two US concerns: state sponsorship of terrorism and nuclear-weapons proliferation. For them, the US must proceed from the reality that, especially with its hands still full in Iraq, forceful options (in particular, military intervention) are virtually nonexistent.
Even with the 9/11 reports and the prospect of various Iran-focused initiatives in Congress this fall, most experts foresee little actual movement until after the November elections. The angry rhetoric may ratchet up, they say, but even after the elections, a conflict-weary America is likely to probe the chances of dialogue.
"The question remains whether the Iranian state, given its very nature and the increasing influence of the conservatives, is able to respond to a call for dialogue," says Daniel Brumberg, an Iran expert at Georgetown University and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "But that's still the direction things will take no matter who wins [the US presidency] in November.
"Opponents on both sides will employ their capacities to undermine it," he adds, "but our military situation, conditions in the region, and the situation in Iraq will make it necessary."
One of three members of President Bush's "axis of evil" - North Korea remains in the club while Iraq has fallen out - Iran had inched away from its evil status for two reasons. Leaders deemed "reformers" had gained prominence in Tehran, and potential for cooperation seemed to bloom in the wake of the US removal of Iran's archenemy next door in Baghdad.
But hopes for improvement withered as Iran made clear its intentions to pursue a nuclear-power program with proliferation implications. Contacts between Tehran and Washington, which had picked up as the US sought Iran's cooperation on Iraq's post-Hussein evolution, were cut off last spring when the US decided Tehran was supporting radicalized and anti-American Shiite factions in Iraq.
Now the bipartisan 9/11 commission reports that Iran allowed at least eight of the Sept. 11 hijackers to transit through its territory on their way to their assignments. While commission members say they uncovered no signs of Iranian participation in the attacks, the findings prompted Bush this week to dust off a tough rhetorical stance towards Tehran, calling it a "totalitarian society ... I have long expressed my concerns about."