The United States has recently ratcheted up its pressure on Iran, accusing the Tehran government of helping insurgents in neighboring Iraq. That has fueled intense speculation about possible U.S. military moves against Iran. The Bush Administration denies any military action against Iran is planned. The heightened rhetoric comes amid a shifting political landscape within Iran itself.
After months of hammering Iran over its nuclear ambitions, President Bush took Iran to task on another front when, in his speech on his new plan for Iraq, he accused Iran as well as Syria of aiding Iraqi insurgents.
"These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq," said Bush.
He also announced he was dispatching a second U.S. aircraft carrier with its support ships to the Persian Gulf. Shortly thereafter, several Iranians were detained in U.S. raids in Iraq, a move that was denounced in Tehran. Taken together, the actions prompted speculation that the United States was contemplating military action against Iran.
U.S. Policy and Capabilities
White House spokesman Tony Snow moved quickly to deny that preparations for military action are under way, calling such stories an "urban legend."
"There are not. What the president was talking about is defending American forces within Iraq and also doing what we can to disrupt networks that might be trying to convey weapons or fighters into battle theaters within Iraq to kill Americans and Iraqis," said Snow.
Reva Bhalla, an Iran affairs analyst with Stratfor, a private intelligence firm, says that even if it wanted to, the United States really does not have the resources available right now to take on Iran militarily. She adds that Iran could retaliate through Hezbollah or insurgents in Iraq if it did.
"It certainly may be tempting. But the United States really doesn't have the military bandwidth to engage Iran militarily at this point. Iran has made it very clear that it has the militant assets in place throughout the region to upset things if such action occurs and to strike at U.S. interests," says Bhalla.
Ironically, it was the United States that removed a key obstacle to Iran's regional ambitions when it toppled Saddam Hussein.
Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of Middle East studies at Syracuse University, says Iran now sees its path to becoming a regional power, and that path runs through Iraq. "Put yourself in their perspective. For the first time in Iraq's history, the Shiites have the upper hand, and they are the natural allies of the Iranians. Many of the leading politicians of Iraq were exiled in Iran. And the Iranian Revolutionary Guard trained many of these forces -- that are now fighting the U.S. forces -- back in the 1980s during the course of the Iran-Iraq War," says Bouroujerdi.
So Iran sees the looming presence of an additional 20,000 U.S. troops in a neighboring country as a roadblock to its bid for standing as the pre-eminent power in the region.
Analysts believe there is debate in Iranian ruling circles about whether Iran should help stabilize Iraq or just let it fall apart until the United States departs, leaving Iran to pick up the pieces. But the political landscape in Tehran appears to be in a state of flux, further contributing to the uncertainty over Iran's intentions.
The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is reported to be ill. Stories of his death were recently in circulation, but proved to be false. Another center of power in Iran, the hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saw his power weakened in elections in December for local bodies and the Assembly of Experts -- the council of Islamic clerics that chooses who will be Supreme Leader.
Mehrzad Boroujerdi says that if Washington believes its hardened stance against Iran over Iraq is designed to foster "regime change" -- a term heard much less recently from Bush administration officials -- it could backfire.
"I don't know what kind of calculations they are basing this new policy on. If it's supposed to be trying to foment dissent and turmoil in Iran, I don't think this is going to do it. If anything, these types of actions are going to surely generate more support for the government's position by being able to depict the U.S. as being the bully who comes and arrests diplomats, and so forth and so on," says Mehrzad Boroujerdi.
But analyst Reva Bhalla says the Bush Administration may be hoping that former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- who lost the 2005 presidential election to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- becomes Supreme Leader when Ayatollah Khamenei dies, in the belief that he would be easier to deal with than the firebrand President Ahmadinejad.
"The U.S. is certainly going to be relieved, I think, when Rafsanjani comes to power. It's not that policy in particular is going to change in Iran, but he is certainly a man that the U.S. can deal with better, and he's someone that the Americans are actually more familiar with as well. So certainly I think that's going to be welcomed in Washington," says Bhalla.
But it is not publicly known how ill the 67-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei is. In Iranian television footage of a speech he gave only days after rumors of his death surfaced, he seemed thinner and his voice was hoarse, but he still appeared relatively healthy.