The US moves to confront Iran and Syria

Both nations aid the 'flow of support' to 'terrorists' in Iraq, President Bush says.

Close to the same hour Wednesday night that President Bush vowed to disrupt the "flow of support" from Iran and Syria to "terrorists and insurgents" in Iraq, US forces raided an Iranian consulate in northern Iraq, arresting five diplomats and staff and taking computers and files.

The raid, and a buildup of US warships in the Persian Gulf, indicate that the Bush administration is ignoring the advice of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) to reach out to the two neighbors to help quell the violence in Iraq.

in the prickly US-Iran dynamic that could further complicate American efforts to calm the fires in Iraq and establish regional stability.

"It seems these 21,000 new troops Mr. Bush wants to send to Iraq are not just to calm [that] country," says Saeed Laylaz, a political and security analyst in Tehran. "It means the new strategy of the US in Iraq and the region is going to put more actual pressure against Iran – financial and military at the same time."

Iranian officials reacted angrily, calling the raid in the northern Kurdish city of Arbil illegal and a signal that US policy toward the Islamic Republic remained "hostile." Throughout 2006, the possibility of US-Iran talks about Iraq appeared to indicate the possibility that 28 years of bitter estrangement might be starting to fade.

There had been some hope in Syria, too, that the ISG's recommendations to engage Iran and Syria might improve strained US-Syrian ties. Bush's reference to deploying Patriot antimissile batteries to the region was aimed squarely at Iran – a point not missed in Tehran.

There had been some hope in Syria, too, that the ISG's recommendations to engage Iran and Syria might improve heavily strained US-Syrian ties. Bush's reference to deploying Patriot antimissile batteries to the region, to "reassure our friends and allies," was aimed squarely at Iran – a point not missed in Tehran.

Their arrival "is part of the US policy direction to create a support umbrella for the Zionist [Israeli] regime through an Islamic country," said Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hosseini. The troop surge, he said, will only "extend insecurity, danger, and tension in the country. This will not help solve Iraq's problems."

Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa said that boosting US troops would "pour oil on the fire" in Iraq.

Bush's comments, in which he stated as fact that a consequence of US "failure" in Iraq would leave Iran "emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons," left many Iranians convinced that there is little chance of rapprochement during the remaining two years of his presidency, regardless of the results in Iraq.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful energy production, and denies that it wants the bomb. To date, UN atomic energy agency inspectors say they have found no evidence that Iran, a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has a weapons program.

"It appears that George Bush is hostile against the Islamic Republic, and is ruling out any compromise between Iran and the US," says Sadiq Zibakalam, a political scientist at Tehran University. "It was a bit surprising because after the [ISG] report, one thought that George Bush would be thinking seriously about its findings ... but he simply ignored it altogether."

The tough talk and military steps have led "many people in Iran [to] feel that if George Bush had not been bogged down in Iraq, he would have definitely attacked Iran long ago," says Mr. Zibakalam, adding that the current climate of suspicion resembles the period after Bush declared Iran part of an "axis of evil" three years ago.

"If the increase in [US] force levels in Iraq represents an escalation of the war as some insist," says Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, "then the extension of US power, directly or indirectly, against Iran would represent an escalation of a different sort – and no less momentous in terms of its potential long-range implications." Mr. Sick was the principal White House aide for Iran during the 1979 Islamic revolution and hostage crisis.

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.

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.

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