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    Middle East
     Feb 8, 2007
A US sea-change over Iran
By Jason Motlagh

WASHINGTON - The drumbeat for a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities over the past year has waxed and waned in Washington corridors, but refuses to go away. The US administration's selection of Admiral William J Fallon to lead Central Command suggests that the latest naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, missile shipments to Sunni Arab allies, and charges that Iran in using Iraq as a proxy may add up to a more-than-familiar tune.

A new US intelligence estimate released last Friday concluded that Iranian meddling is "not likely" a major cause of violence in

Iraq. This has not stanched the rhetoric of administration officials, who contend they have a "mountain of evidence" to prove Iran is providing arms and funding to Shi'ite militias engaged in sectarian clashes, though they have yet to disclose any.

The ante was upped when US forces raided a diplomatic compound in northern Iraq last month and detained five alleged Iranian agents they accused of aiding insurgents. President George W Bush has also issued an "order to kill" Iranian operatives who interfere with US objectives in Iraq.

"To the extent that anybody, including Iranians, are smuggling weapons, bringing in fighters, killing Americans, trying to destabilize the democracy in Iraq, we will take appropriate measures to defend our troops and also to defend the mission," White House spokesman Tony Snow said last week.

Interestingly, the need to show America's enduring commitment to Iraq was also cited by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to justify a sudden military escalation beyond its borders: a second aircraft-carrier battle group is now en route to the Gulf, while upgraded Patriot anti-missile missiles have been deployed to Israel and other Arab Gulf states threatened by Iran's emergence as a regional power.

Fears that Iran would retaliate to a US or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities by launching short-range missiles at neighborhood rivals, according to one analyst, indicate that the military buildup "has Iran written all over it".

Asked whether an offensive against the Islamic Republic is kicking into gear, Gates said at a Pentagon news conference on Friday, "We are not planning for a war with Iran." He echoed the words of Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, who told a radio interviewer the night before: "We've been very clear we don't intend to cross the border into Iran, we don't intend to strike into Iran, in terms of what we are doing in Iraq."

European diplomats insist all the saber-rattling should be understood as an aggressive US effort to deter Iran from proceeding with uranium enrichment in accord with United Nations demands, now enforced by stringent economic sanctions.

Even the most ominous estimates hold that the country is still years away from developing a nuclear weapon. But Iran has nevertheless begun installing 3,000 centrifuges at its Natanz facility, which could be used to convert uranium into weapons-grade material for bombs. Meanwhile, Russia says it will uphold its pledge to send nuclear fuel to the Bushehr nuclear power plant by next month. Some analysts say that if the Bushehr shipment were diverted to Natanz, enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb could be produced quickly.

"If the Iranians drop [the Russian shipment] into Natanz, within a couple of weeks they would have enough highly enriched uranium for an atomic bomb," John Pike, a defense expert at GlobalSecurity.org, told Asia Times Online. "By the end of this month, we will [either] have bombed Iran or not."

If an attack is in the offing, there could arguably be no better man calling the shots than Admiral Fallon. In recent years, Fallon, a former navy pilot, has headed Pacific Command, a theater of operations largely centered on air and maritime tactical strategies. His specialty is maritime-based air power, and he has been successful in conveying to China and other nations in Northeast and Southeast Asia that the United States was willing to enforce its traditional security role in the region as an ally of Taiwan.

Outside of an imminent strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, or a possible Iranian attack on US forces in Iraq or other allies in the region, the appointment of a navy admiral to head up CentCom is hard to square. CentCom oversees US military operations in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has traditionally been commanded by army or Marine Corps generals well versed in ground warfare. Unlike outgoing CentCom chief army General John Abizaid, Fallon has never commanded US forces fighting a guerrilla insurgency such the one being played out in cities across Iraq.

However, analysts say his experience with carrier-borne air strikes makes him ideally suited to coordinate a possible move on Iran.

"That's been the buzz since he was announced," said Pike. "As the pot has begun to bubble with missile and carrier deployments, [his naval background] reinforces the theory" of a strike against Iran. The net effect of Fallon's appointment and recent military deployments around the Gulf, he added, could also ensure that Tehran remains "in a deterrence state of mind" as it decides to move ahead with uranium enrichment.

On January 30, Fallon told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he "philosophically" favors engagement with Iran. "The extent that we can understand better the thoughts and actions of others removes substantially, in my experience, the danger of miscalculation, and so I strong endorse that approach," he said. "In the Iranian situation I've got to get a better assessment of where we stand."

But the admiral went on to note that Iran is maneuvering itself to prevent the United States from gaining access to the Persian Gulf, while "destabilizing" the region at large.

Jason Motlagh is deputy foreign editor at United Press International in Washington, DC.

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A glimmer of light for Iran and the US (Feb 7, '07)

Lawmakers move to restrain Bush on Iran (Feb 3, '07)


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