Earlier this month when House leader Nancy Pelosi struck a provision from a $100-billion spending bill that would have specifically required President Bush to seek congressional approval before any military strike on Iran, it was seen as a victory for the hawks in Washington.
After all, the Democrats took control of Congress last year in large part because of voter anger over the Iraq war. If they were saying that Bush doesn't need their permission to take action against Iran, then his "all options are on the table" rhetoric looks stronger, and raises the possibility of expanded conflict in the Middle East.
But war with Iran, or even targeted air strikes at presumed nuclear facilities, is looking less and less likely. Despite tough rhetoric from both sides and increased tension over Iran's move to detain 15 British sailors last week, a variety of influential thinkers who championed the US-led invasion of Iraq are now saying that containment, not confrontation, is the best approach to Iran.
"I think the discussion has really shifted," says M. J. Rosenberg, the director of analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, a pressure group in Washington that favors diplomatic efforts to resolve the Middle East's problems and worries that the Iraq war has made Israel and America less safe. "The conventional wisdom in Washington has changed," says Mr. Rosenberg. There were influential people who thought that thought military action could be possible this year, he says. "Now, hardly anyone does."
Mr. Rosenberg says continued tough talk – and the Democrat climbdown over the spending bill – largely serve two functions: to hopefully soften up Iran in ongoing diplomatic negotiations over inspections of its nuclear facilities; and as a sop to hard-line groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which advocates continued political and economic sanctions on Iran until it gives up its nuclear program, and whose lobbying was largely seen as leading Ms. Pelosi to take her action. [Editor's Note: The original version mischaracterized AIPAC 's position.]
But it's not just doves like Rosenberg. The more hawkish forces in Washington – from neoconservatives who believe the Middle East should be remade by force to pro-Israel lobby groups that say military strikes would prevent Iran from advancing its nuclear ambitions – have taken a step back.
The logistics of a strike, with an expanded US military role in Iraq and the fact that the two US carrier groups in the Gulf can't stay there indefinitely, are growing ever more difficult. And polls show a large majority of Americans prefer diplomacy, at least for now.
"If Bush attacked Iran tomorrow, the great majority of Americans would think he was nuts,'' Patrick Clawson, deputy director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said last week at a conference in Washington on America's options with Iran.
Mr. Clawson, a vigorous proponent of invading Iraq, sees the Islamic Republic of Iran as an intractable enemy of the US, and has repeatedly urged that the US focus on regime change there by supporting exiled dissidents and democratic opponents inside the country.
But he has recently written that military action against Iran "is clearly undesirable" and thinks war is out of the question, unless it is triggered by a "much more aggressive" stance from Iran, for instance a withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the testing of a nuclear weapon.
At the same conference, which was sponsored by the RAND Corporation, a think tank with close ties to the American military establishment, Ken Pollack, another supporter of the Iraq invasion, said he favors keeping the pressure on Iran with sanctions, which he thinks could work in containing their nuclear program if Iran sees that the social and economic costs are high enough.
He sees military action as an absolute last resort, and worries that Iran could easily tie up US forces in Iraq – where the US alleges many of the Shiite militias closely cooperate with Tehran. "We need to think about Iraq before we go off on some half-cocked military action against Iran,'' Mr. Pollack says.
To be sure, there are still real risks of an eventual escalation. The UN Security Council on Saturday backed a package of sanctions against Iran that includes a ban on Iranian arms exports and a freezing of the assets abroad of 28 individuals and organizations involved in the country's nuclear program.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned about the planned sanctions last week, saying that if big powers via the Security Council took "illegal actions" and ignored the Islamic Republic's rights, "we can also carry out illegal actions and we will do that." He insisted Iran would continue with efforts to enrich uranium – a fuel needed for both nuclear reactors, but that could also be used to make a weapon.
David Ochmanek, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for strategy and now a defense analyst at RAND, argues that the logic of seeking nuclear weapons from the Iranian perspective is compelling – and America's desire to stop that just as urgent.
He says Iran's conventional military, particularly its Air Force and anti-aircraft batteries "are really a museum" and that its recent history – a ruinous war with Iraq in the 1980s in which Sunni Arab regimes, and at times the US, supported Iraq – has convinced it to rely on itself rather than international forums when it comes to its defense.
In that context, nuclear weapons have a "unique deterrent value" and he argues that strikes on Iranian facilities today would probably lead Iran to "redouble its efforts" to acquire a bomb.
Of course, Iran insists that its nuclear program is entirely for peaceful energy purposes. Speaking by video link because the US won't allow him to leave New York, Iranian Ambassador to the UN Javad Zarif disputed the belief of strategists like Mr. Ochmanek that a nuclear weapon would be attractive for Iran.
"Nuclear weapons won't help Iran," he said. They would "increase our vulnerabilities and decrease our influence ... nuclear deterrence for Iran is just a myth."
Nevertheless, Mr. Zarif maintained the insistent Iranian line that it needs to be able to produce nuclear fuel on its soil. He said that "everyone knows... sanctions will not reach the intended result" and turned a favorite saying of former President Ronald Reagan's by describing the attitude of the two countries towards one another as "mistrust and verify."
Zarif said suggestions by some UN diplomats that a compromise could be reached – in which an international consortium would promise to supply Iran with nuclear fuel produced abroad – are unacceptable, though he implied that an agreement to produce fuel in Iran with international oversight might be acceptable, though this is an outcome the US says it won't accept.
For now, diplomacy is taking its course. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Tuesday he aimed to continue talks with Iran's top nuclear negotiator early next week.
"There's no guarantee that diplomatic options will succeed," says Mr. Pollack. "But [they're] likeliest to succeed.