Gunboat Diplomacy

News reports based on military sources indicating that the United States plans to move a second aircraft carrier and its supporting ships to the Persian Gulf next month, where it will overlap for several months with the USS Eisenhower, have piqued attention (and anxiety) on the Potomac this week: is the Bush administration laying the groundwork for a spring air war against Tehran, even as it comes under growing domestic pressures to consider talking with Iran and Syria?

The Pentagon announcement of the planned amassing of naval air power in the Gulf coincided with a similar British pledge to move warships to the Persian Gulf, as well as statements from the State Department, President Bush, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that all focused on Iran's allegedly increasing misbehavior in the region. The Iranian government is “openly supporting terrorism in Iraq to stop a fledgling democratic process, trying to turn out a democratic government in Lebanon, flouting the international community's desire for peace in Palestine -- at the same time as denying the Holocaust,” Blair said Wednesday at a conference in Dubai.

After months of negotiations, the UN Security Council is expected to pass a resolution imposing limited sanctions on Iran as early as today, sources said, barring a hitch. Sanctions would include a limited “travel ban on Iranians associated with the nuclear program, a freeze on their overseas assets, and a ban on nuclear-related exports,” the Guardian reported. They will be the first UN Security Council sanctions on Iran since 1979.

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Are the amassing air power in the region and sanctions signs of looming war? Not yet.

Interviews with U.S. officials and knowledgeable Iran watchers indicate the stepped up measures are meant for now as a message to Iran to step back from an alleged up-tick in its recent efforts to destabilize Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, and to prevent Iran from taking retaliatory actions against the anticipated sanctions like, for instance, closing off the Straits of Hormuz.

“The idea is definitely to keep the Iranians aware that there is a price to pay for their policies and the U.S. is not rolling over,” said a U.S. official Thursday, speaking on background. “The Iranians are being unhelpful in funding and supporting people blowing coalition forces up in Iraq… [The announced US actions] are to say, ‘We have teeth, we have force. You shouldn't think we're some paper tiger. You are challenging us and we have a lot of strength and ability in the Security Council and the international community and diplomatically. Just because we screwed up in Iraq, doesn't mean we're screwed.'”

“This is all about preparing options … rather than the reflection of a decision to attack,” an Iranian American with close ties to the administration told the Prospect. “From small stuff, like backing up boats that interdict ships suspected of moving munitions into Iraq, to the more serious, such as interdictions of nuclear and missile related equipment bound for Iran."

Should the United States bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, this Iranian observer added, it “must be prepared to defend the targets of a probable counterattack, such as supertankers, oil facilities of the southern Gulf, and, most importantly, the Straits of Hormuz. Although you may have to sink more than 10 supertankers to block the Straits, the oil markets would have a brutal reaction to far fewer.”

While U.S. officials and Iran watchers interviewed suggested the recently announced U.S. actions are intended mainly as intimidation to forestall Iranian retaliation, many interviewed acknowledged that U.S.-Iranian tensions have significantly ratcheted up in recent weeks. Examples include the U.S. intelligence revealing an alleged Iranian role in Shiite terrorism against coalition forces in Iraq, recent efforts by Iranian backed Hezbollah to bring down the Siniora government in Lebanon, and alleged Iranian support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The New York Times reported last month that Iranian security forces and Iranian-backed Hezbollah have been training and supplying explosives and other sophisticated munitions to Iraqi Shiite militants directly involved in killing coalition forces in Iraq. “American officials say the Iranians have also provided direct support to Shiite militias in Iraq, including explosives and trigger devices for roadside bombs, and training for several thousand fighters, mostly in Iran,” the Times reported. “The training is carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, they say.”

“In Iraq and Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Iran has sabotaged negotiations between [Palestinian president] Abbas and Hamas, it has tried to stifle democracy in Lebanon, and wreaks havoc in Iraq,” says Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group with close ties to the administration. “The U.S. has to play a tough hand.”

A U.S. official indicated that one reason for the perceived need to demonstrate a show of force towards Iran now is to counter the perception in the region, generated in part from coverage of the Iraq Study Group report, that the Bush administration was coming under increased domestic pressure to offer concessions to Iran and Syria. “People in the region read the ISG report and thought the Americans are surrendering,” this official said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Contrary to other U.S. officials interviewed, retired Colonel Sam Gardiner said in an interview this week that he sees several signs that the United States is in fact moving on a warpath to Iran. He suggested that the talk of sending additional troops to Iraq could actually be about Iran, and said he is also seeing signs that the administration “is beginning to develop the strategic communications message. It is about Iran more and more that you hear people talking …The evidence suggests the White House put an embargo on talking about Iran beginning the second week in October…” That embargo now appears to have been lifted, Gardiner says. “A story” -- an Iran narrative -- “is being put together.” But the knowledgeable Iranian observer says that narrative and show of force could be interpreted another way. “Given the weak position of the US in Iraq, and on the nuclear issue,” he says, Washington “needs all the demonstration of strength she could muster, should she decide to start talks with Iran.”

What is at least clear is that the Bush administration is stepping up efforts to make more options available for itself in deciding whether or not to pursue negotiations -- or in the eventuality that the diplomatic option is determined by the White House to have run its course.

Laura Rozen is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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