Avoiding another US war in the Middle East

The post-9/11 US strategy to "take the war to the enemy" has now evolved into risky confrontation with Iran. The US has put more Navy ships in the Gulf, ordered a search for Iranian agents in Iraq, and put a squeeze on Iran's banks. The endgame?

That's not so clear.

Yes, President Bush wants Iran to suspend its bomb-grade uranium enrichment, a goal endorsed last month by the UN Security Council – with sanctions. And he wants an end to Iranian support of militias in Iraq and anti-Israel groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas.

But how far is Mr. Bush willing to apply unilateral aggressive actions against Iran, short of war?

And what of any danger if an unexpected armed incident triggers an irreversible slide toward war?

Going eyeball to eyeball with the unstable Islamic theocracy in Tehran should not be done without gaining more support from Congress and key allies in Europe. And, after relying on inaccurate information to invade Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Bush administration should share at least some irrefutable secret intelligence about Iran's intentions and capabilities if it expects public backing for this perilous posturing.

On Monday, Bush warned that the US military in Iraq "will respond firmly" if Iran threatens American forces or Iraqi citizens. He's also reportedly set up a special military task force just to capture or kill Iran's agents in Iraq, after the US snagged a few who allegedly were involved with militias.

And that comes after the US has sent a second naval carrier group into the area, lined up a meeting of Arab states to express concern about Iran's influence in the region, and sped up delivery of more Patriot antimissile batteries to the region.

On the other hand, this creeping confrontation with Iran, which may be related to the "surge" of US troops in Iraq, could simply be a ploy by the White House, for three reasons:

1. Iran faces a late-February deadline set by the UN to suspend almost all its nuclear activities. US actions may force it to comply.

2. As pressure builds in Congress to draw down troops in Iraq, Bush may simply be trying to level the playing field with Iran in order to open talks about stabilizing Iraq and allowing a US withdrawal.

3. A power struggle appears under way in Iran with reports that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may be ill. The country could be in a succession crisis this year. US pressure may help some factions that favor suspending Iran's nuclear ambitions to avoid confrontation with the West.

Bush should be commended for seeking international support against Iran's destabilizing actions. And European governments need to be speedier in adopting legal means to restrain business deals with Iran.

But Bush's unilateral tactics and timing need better watchdogging by Congress and the press.

Questions need to be asked, for instance, about the Iranian agents captured in Iraq. What exactly were they doing there?

And Vice President Dick Cheney says Iran's threat is "multidimensional." But how urgent are those threats? Is North Korea, for instance, helping Iran prepare a nuclear test?

This game of chicken with Iran needs to be played with eyes open.

The US can't afford another Iraq.

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