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Are U.S. and Iran headed for war?

Despite hard-line rhetoric on both sides, analysts say diplomacy is the far more likely outcome.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 2007

Istanbul, Turkey

The drumbeat may sound like a march to conflict between the United States and Iran:

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•US commanders are building a small forward base in Iraq – Combat Outpost Shocker, just miles from Iran's border – to stanch what they say is the flow of lethal weaponry that is part of an Iranian "proxy war" against the US.

•Iranian commanders are touting better missile capability and electronic surveillance of the "enemy," and making leadership changes that appear to prepare for a fight.

•And the US Senate last week voted for a resolution to designate Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a "terrorist" group. Iran's parliament reciprocated on Saturday, designating the CIA and US Armyas "terrorists."

But in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial US visit, are signs pointing toward war or diplomacy?

Despite hard-line rhetoric on both sides – and a lengthy story by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker posted on Sunday that suggests the Bush administration is ready for "surgical strikes" against Iran – analysts say diplomacy is the far more likely outcome.

"I am convinced they have zero interest in a war with Iran," says Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, who has spent time with key US decisionmakers in recent months and visited Iraq in July. "They are completely fixated on Iraq." The military in Iraq is "apoplectic" about Iran's role, he says, prompting a "steady drumbeat to take stronger and stronger measures against the Iranians."

President Bush said in August he had "authorized" US commanders to "confront Tehran's murderous activities." But few in civilian or Pentagon leadership appear ready for direct military action. The US instead is working for a third round of UN sanctions over Iran's nuclear program, and US and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad have met three times for talks.

"If ever [US officials] got a smoking gun, where they could directly trace a line between a dead American military person and an Iranian official – my guess is their first inclination would be: 'How do we use this to get the Russians, Chinese, and Europeans to agree to harsher sanctions? How do we use this as leverage to force the Iranians to get serious in these talks?' " says Mr. Pollack, author of "The Persian Puzzle." "I don't think their first inclination is: 'OK, now we can unleash the strike on the Iranians that we have wanted to unleash.' "

Mr. Ahmadinejad has said repeatedly that Iran is not looking for war, and that he is certain the US will not attack. Despite his acrimonious face-off at Columbia University last week, and comments about gays in Iran and the Holocaust that dominated US media coverage, he stated that Iran would not threaten any nation.

But at the UN, Ahmadinejad berated "arrogant powers" that have "repeatedly accused Iran and even made military threats" on the nuclear issue. And there were other barbs: "With the grace of God, the Columbia University issue revealed their aggressive and mean-spirited image," he told Iran's state TV. "It backfired. What happened was exactly the opposite of what their shallow minds had presumed."

His performance struck a chord in Iran, where the president is under fire from rivals and even fellow conservatives for his combative style and failure to improve the economy. Ahmadinejad even said that if the US "puts aside some of its old behaviors, it can actually be a good friend for the Iranian people, for the Iranian nation."

"I was surprised by the reaction in the street, from shopkeepers, customers, taxi drivers – they were impressed" with his calm arguments and "logic," says a veteran analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named.

The president's trip and a recent agreement reached with the UN's nuclear watchdog to resolve remaining questions, mean the "expectation in the street of a [US-Iran] military clash is lower," says the analyst. "But up there [at the highest levels], how much are they deceiving themselves?"