In a significant policy shift propelled by the war on terrorism, the Bush administration has effectively ruled out a rapprochement with the government of Iran - while voicing support for popular opposition to the Tehran regime.
Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, its power-grabbing in post-Taliban Afghanistan, and its ongoing support for Islamic terrorist organizations have dashed any possibility now of closer ties, senior administration officials say.
"The president settled the whole debate by saying 'Iran, this is not the moment. This is not a regime we can have a warm and fuzzy relationship with,' " says a senior Pentagon official, referring to President Bush's inclusion of Iran as part of an "axis of evil."
Iran has responded with angry indignation to the Bush charges, with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi this week criticizing the administration's approach to counterterrorism as "self-centered, unilateral, and naïve."
THE Iran case illustrates how the US "war on terror" brings a stark, new definition to foreign relations as Washington swiftly sorts out friend and foe. It also indicates the limits of the US-led campaign to rally foreign countries around a fight against terror as defined by Washington. Instead, it reveals how strong undercurrents of opportunism and sheer, guns-and-money politics often dictate the willingness of nations such as Iran to cooperate.
The State Department, for years has designated Iran as a leading state sponsor of terrorism. And the Iranian regime has condemned America as "the Great Satan" since it came to power in the Islamic revolution of 1979. But, the US had quietly encouraged the reform movement that brought President Mohammad Khatami to power in 1997.
And in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, encouraging signs emerged in US relations with Iran. Mr. Khatami sent condolences to the people of the US, while Iranian civilians gathered to light candles in sympathy for the victims.
Meanwhile, as the US airstrikes on Afghanistan began, Iran indicated it would carry out search-and-rescue efforts for downed US planes. When the Taliban collapsed, Tehran - which long had hostile relations with the Afghan regime - cooperated with Washington in creating a post-Taliban government.
Yet since then, Iran has moved aggressively to assert its influence in Afghanistan by channeling money, weapons, and supplies to warlords in western provinces, challenging the grip of the country's fledgling interim authority, US officials say. More worrisome, Washingtonaccuses Iran of letting through its borders fleeing members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden, a charge Tehran denies.
Indeed, US officials now conclude that the cooperation with Iran in Afghanistan was a reflection of a fleeting common interest, rather than a sign that Tehran backed US anti-terrorist goals.
AS soon as the Taliban were gone, it became a very brutally competitive game in Afghanistan," said the senior Pentagon official, who requested not to be named. "The Iranians are playing hardball."
On Jan. 3, Israel raided the ship Karine A in the Red Sea and found 50 tons of weapons that Israeli and the US concluded were being smuggled from Iran to the Palestinian Authority. That highlighted Iran's persistent backing of Hizbullah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and others on the US list of terrorist organizations.
"Iran has not let up at any time in its very direct involvement in all kinds of terrorism," says Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
These concerns - along with Iran's ongoing efforts to produce missiles and develop a nuclear threat - sealed the president's verdict on Iran, US officials say.
Despite the president's harsh "axis of evil" rhetoric, Pentagon officials don't suggest military action against Iran is imminent. "It's not a declaration of war," said one official. "It's a statement of solidarity with ordinary Iranians who oppose the regime."
Bush's State of the Union speech, hit Iran's conservative religious leaders as the "unelected few" who "repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld echoed the theme: "I think a lot of the people of Iran would like to throw off that regime. I think that there's a lot of young people and women in that country that feel repressed."
Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory body, puts it more strongly. "The broad public is openly fed up with the government. I think it is the beginning of the end for the Iranian regime."