The US moves to confront Iran and Syria
Both nations aid the 'flow of support' to 'terrorists' in Iraq, President Bush says.
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In December, several Iranians were arrested in Baghdad at the offices of a prominent Shiite leader. US officials are reported also to have found documents about Iran's role in Iraq, working with both anti-US Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.Skip to next paragraph
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The White House has long accused Iran of meddling in Iraq, though analysts in Tehran agree that a stable Iraq – although preferably one of "manageable chaos" that keeps US forces tied down – is in its best interest.
"Raising troop levels shows that the US is not ready to go out of the region," says analyst Mr. Laylaz. "The US can't go out of [Iraq] at the moment. If they go now, there will be a bloodbath in Iraq, and it will be absolutely harmful for the majority Shiites in the country. I don't think Mr. Maliki's regime can stay in power for more than week if the Americans leave."
At a press conference Thursday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice renewed an offer to talk with her Iranian counterpart to discuss "every facet" of mutual grievance, if Iran first suspends uranium-enrichment programs – a step that Tehran has ruled out.
But Secretary Rice also told Fox News: "The president made very clear last night that we know that Iran is engaged in activities that are endangering our troops, activities that are destabilizing the young Iraqi government, and that we're going to pursue those who may be involved in those activities."
"There is a sense in Washington among some [conservative] circles – mistakenly, I would say – that their policy of putting pressure on Iran is working," says Mohammad Hadi Semati, a professor of political science at Tehran University who is finishing a three-year stint at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Carnegie Endowment in Washington.
US conservatives point to the backlash in December elections against candidates loyal to archconservative Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the recent unanimous UN Security Council decision to impose modest sanctions against Iran over the nuclear issue.
"There is a perception in some quarters in [Washington], that 'maybe our policy is working, so let's push further, and further put the screws on Iran,' " says Mr. Semati, noting that the election backlash was largely due to domestic issues in Iran. "The facts of the matter really don't matter."
The effect of Bush's stance may instead be the opposite in Iran. "If anything, this will help consolidate conservative forces, the hard-liners, even more," says Semati. "And the moderate, pragmatic forces, looking for an engagement [with the US and the West] – even a minimal engagement – they are going to lose the case."
A similar reaction may take place in Syria. "I keep hearing from Syrians that President Bush has lost touch with reality," says Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs. The continued tough US stance against Syria, he says "is only going to strengthen the hard-liners in Syria, who have already come into the ascendance in the last year-and-a-half or so."
US-Syrian relations have been in a deep freeze since the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, two years ago. But several US senators have visited Damascus in recent weeks, emboldened by the Democrats' success in the midterm elections, and by the ISG call to reengage.
Even as the US has criticized Syria for allowing militants across its 400-mile border with Iraq, Iraq-Syria ties have improved since a visit by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem to Baghdad in November. Diplomatic ties were restored last month, and a joint security agreement signed.
Still, Syria's vice president, Mr. Sharaa, does not expect the Americans to ease their tough stance, says Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus correspondent of the Arabic Al-Hayat daily, who met Sharaa on Wednesday.
"If the Syrians keep on sending positive messages to the Iraqis, and if the relations with the Iraqis improve, then this may have some impact on Syria's relations with the Americans," says Mr. Hamidi. "But nothing will happen soon. It will take time."
• Correspondent Nicholas Blanford contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.