WASHINGTON — In an atmosphere of sharp skepticism about intelligence and heightened sensitivity to saber rattling since the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration is signaling a more cautious tone toward Iran.
Less than a month ago, President Bush used a speech on a way forward in Iraq to present fresh accusations against Iran and roll out a more aggressive approach to the regime in Tehran. Now, the Iran debate is sounding markedly different.
Senior officials from the White House, State Department, and Pentagon are playing down the evidence the US possesses of "nefarious" Iranian involvement in Iraq's spiraling violence – in particular against US forces there. They're also insisting the US wants to work out problems with Tehran diplomatically.
A repeated delay in a promised presentation of evidence against Iran reflects the administration's desire to get things right, and to neither overplay nor underestimate involvement, officials say.
Explaining why the rollout of facts on Iranian involvement has been delayed, Stephen Hadley, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, told reporters Friday that "the truth is, quite frankly, we thought the briefing overstated, and we sent it back to get it narrowed and focused on the facts."
But the moderated tone also suggests an administration still smarting over memories of the earlier botched campaign to justify taking on Saddam Hussein, some experts say. And with some military officials cautioning against the risks of an "accidental escalation" resulting from a mishandling of the new aggressiveness toward Iran, the administration may have decided to pull back, they say.
Yet others with experience in similar situations involving both policy and intelligence motivations believe some evidence linking Iran to recent acts of violence is in US hands – but that intelligence officials have resisted its release for fear of compromising a fruitful information channel.
"What we've seen so far suggests information from somewhere in the Iranian government, perhaps from the Quds force of the Revolutionary Guard, but the intelligence people don't want to let it out for fear of tipping off the Iranians or losing a source," says Wayne White, a former Middle East analyst with the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research.
"Cat fights" are common, Mr. White says, between "policy people" who want to get the information out, and the intelligence side that is more focused on long-term effectiveness. "I suspect there was quite a lot of friction last week over Iran," he says.
The charges against Iran so far appear to stem from the following incidents:
•On Jan. 11, the United States raided the Iranian mission in the Kurdish city of Arbil, detaining six people and seizing what it said was material suggesting Iranian involvement in the supply of more powerful and sophisticated arms used in attacks on US forces.
•In late December, other Iranians, including two diplomats, were detained in Iraq and questioned. The diplomats were later released.
•Five US soldiers were abducted and killed in a sophisticated operation Jan. 20 in the Shiite city of Karbala. US military officials in Baghdad suspected the attackers, who wore US-style uniforms, of either being Iranian or benefiting from Iranian training. US military sources said they had never seen so sophisticated an attack from Iraqi insurgents.
•For more than a year, US armored vehicles, including the M1 Abrams battle tank, have been the target of increasingly powerful and sophisticated weaponry.
Last August, Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero cited "irrefutable" evidence that Iran was providing the technology for advanced explosive devices being used against US forces. In a Pentagon briefing, he said Iran was funding, equipping, and training "Shia extremist groups." But British forces patrolling Iraq's southeastern border with Iran reported last fall encountering more hearsay than evidence of such activity.
Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador to Iraq, said after the Arbil operation that some of the detained were from the Quds force and that one detainee was a director of operations for the Quds force.
But last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that information he had seen from the Karbala attack was "ambiguous" as to an Iranian role, adding that it was too early in the investigation to be conclusive.
Also last week, Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of State for political affairs, said it was "not possible to say exactly who" was responsible for the Karbala attack.
One issue the Bush administration faces is that it is seen to be focusing on Iran when Iraq's civil war – and Iraqi sectarian violence – is reaching a new intensity. Even the National Intelligence Estimate released last week minimized the Iranian role in Iraq, saying internal factors are more significant contributors to Iraq's instability.
"The involvement of [Iran and Syria] is not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq's internal sectarian dynamics," the report says.
That conclusion mirrors the view of experts like White, who believe Iran is involved in Iraq, but not in any decisive manner. "Yes, I believe the Iranians are doing this, but at a level that doesn't matter very much. Compared to the magnitude of the Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, they are really playing a bit part in all of this," says White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Focusing on Iran now would risk suggesting the administration was trying to put up a smoke screen, some observers say. It would also not appear to be the right time to amplify accusations that Shiite Iran is providing material and personnel to target Sunni neighborhoods, given that the horrendous bombings of the last week have all hit Shiite neighborhoods.
As to why the Bush administration is choosing to verbally confront Iran now, White sees three reasons beyond a desire to stop suspected arms supplies. "I suspect they want to push Iran back a little to give the troop surge a slightly better chance of success," he says. "But I also think they are setting up a target to blame for if and when the surge fails. And then it is part of a steady vilifying of Iran, so that if they do go after them over their nuclear program, the US public is that much more prepared for it."