As the dispute over its nuclear program arrives at the U.N. Security Council today, Iran has vaulted to the front of the U.S. national security agenda amid Bush administration plans for a sustained campaign against the ayatollahs of Tehran.
President Bush and his team have been huddling in closed-door meetings on Iran, summoning scholars for advice, investing in opposition activities, creating an Iran office in Washington and opening listening posts abroad dedicated to the efforts against Tehran.
The internal administration debate that raged in the first term between those who advocated more engagement with Iran and those who preferred more confrontation appears in the second term to be largely settled in favor of the latter. Although administration officials do not use the term "regime change" in public, that in effect is the goal they outline as they aim to build resistance to the theocracy.
"We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Senate testimony last week. "We do not have a problem with the Iranian people. We want the Iranian people to be free. Our problem is with the Iranian regime."
In private meetings, Bush and his advisers have been more explicit. Members of the Hoover Institution's board of overseers who met with Bush, Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley two weeks ago emerged with the impression that the administration has shifted to a more robust policy aimed at the Iranian government.
"The message that we received is that they are in favor of separating the Iranian people from the regime," said Esmail Amid-Hozour, an Iranian American businessman who serves on the Hoover board.
"The upper hand is with those who are pushing regime change rather than those who are advocating more diplomacy," said Richard N. Haass, who as State Department policy planning director in Bush's first term was among those pushing for engagement.
But as the administration gears up, the struggle with Iran remains shadowed by Iraq. The botched intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons has left a credibility challenge in convincing the public and the world that the administration is right this time about Iran. After alienating European allies in the rush to war in Iraq, the administration is following a slower, multilateral approach. And with U.S. forces stretched, analysts wonder how feasible a military option would be if it came to that.
The focus on Iran inside the administration lately has been striking. Bush, according to aides, has been spending more time on the issue, and advisers have invited 30 to 40 specialists for consultations in recent months.
In the past week, the State Department created an Iran desk. Last year, only two people in the department worked full time on Iran; now there will be 10. The department is launching more training in the Farsi language and is planning an Iranian career track, which has been difficult without an embassy there.
Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said in an interview that the department will also add staff in Dubai, which is part of the United Arab Emirates, as well as at other embassies in the vicinity of Iran, all assigned to watch Tehran. He called the new Dubai outpost the "21st century equivalent" of the Riga station in Latvia that monitored the Soviet Union in the 1930s when the United States had no embassy in Moscow.
The administration also has launched a $75 million program to advance democracy in Iran by expanding broadcasting into the country, funding nongovernmental organizations and promoting cultural exchanges. Voice of America broadcasts one hour a day into Iran; by April, that will grow to four hours a day, and the administration plans to go to 24 hours a day. But the administration suffered a setback last week when lawmakers slashed $19 million, mainly from broadcast operations.
The administration got to this point after a year of deliberately staying on the sidelines. After the United States took the lead on Iraq, the British told Bush administration officials that Washington should let the Europeans go first on dealing with Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.
During her first trip to Europe as secretary of state, in February 2005, Rice was surprised that most questions from European officials concerned Iran, not Iraq, and was sobered by the realization that they viewed Washington as the problem, not Tehran.
When Bush went to Europe a few weeks later, French President Jacques Chirac and then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany pushed him to support a British-French-German diplomatic effort dubbed the EU-3. Bush agreed, and Rice announced the decision a year ago last weekend. With the Europeans in the lead, it became easier to persuade Russia and China as well to take a tougher line with Iran.
"We have taken the position from the get-go that we believed it was important to work with as many countries as possible," Burns said. "We wanted to have the entire international community on our side in order to pressure Iran."
The biggest help bringing the international community together, though, came from Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proved so incendiary -- in dismissing the Holocaust and talking about wiping Israel off the map -- that the prospect of a negotiated solution faded. The statements underscored the danger posed by Tehran and, according to Burns, led Rice "to say we need to fire on all pistons on Iran." Ultimately, the Europeans, Russia and China agreed to send Iran to the Security Council.
‘A free and democratic Iran’
Bush decided to push more overtly for a democratic Iran. "Tonight," he said in his State of the Union address on Jan. 31, "let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran."
Now that the nuclear issue is at the Security Council, the U.S. strategy is to escalate gradually rather than force an immediate climax. The first step would be a statement by the council president declaring Iran in violation of nuclear treaty obligations and demanding it suspend uranium enrichment. If that fails, the council could be asked to impose economic sanctions or pass a resolution allowing military force to enforce compliance. Russia and China, which have veto power, seem unlikely to support either move.
"There's a clear desire to have a broad coalition," a senior U.S. official said. "The question is, how do you get any action out of it?"
Some analysts believe this year will lead to a decision point for Bush whether to use a military option. For now, Bush and his aides say all options are on the table, but as a practical matter no armed strike is likely until diplomacy has been exhausted.
Many military specialists doubt a strike would be effective because Iran's nuclear facilities are scattered in dozens of locations, and would require hundreds of sorties first to disrupt Iranian air defenses. Such an attack, they say, could inflame the Muslim world and alienate reformers within Iran.
Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Washington should instead try direct negotiations with Tehran: "The United States ought to make a major diplomatic push in part because it might succeed, in part because none of the other options are attractive and in part because if you're going to escalate you want to demonstrate that you tried." The current policy, he said, "looks to me more like a hope than a strategy."
Some Republicans, though, say a military attack may be required if only to set back Iran's nuclear program a few years.
‘Do something decisive’
"Every year that we wait, the risk increases," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. "I would hope that the administration would decide to do something decisive. . . . We have the military power in the region if we need it. It's a question of whether we have the will."
Such a decision could prompt deep skepticism after the Iraq intelligence failure. "As far as Congress, they're certainly going to do their homework more this time and demand more from the intelligence community before they go along with this," said a Senate Republican leadership aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The way things are going now, the aide said, "It's hard to see this getting resolved under the Bush administration."