Friday January 12, 2007
If George Bush's remodelled strategy for halting the Iraq disaster fails to work, it is becoming clear where the US administration will point the finger of blame: Tehran. For some months Washington has been moving aggressively on a range of fronts to "pin back" Iran, in Tony Blair's words. But Mr Bush's Iraq policy speech on Wednesday night marked the opening of a new, far more aggressive phase which could extend the conflict into Iranian territory for the first time since the 2003 invasion.
Mr Bush's choice of words constituted an unmistakable warning that US forces may in future conduct hot pursuit operations into Iran against terrorist suspects or their backers. "These two regimes [Iran and Syria] are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq," Mr Bush said."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."
Asked on CBS television yesterday whether that meant US troops could be sent across the Iranian border, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said that option was on the table. "We have to recognise that Iran is engaging in activities that endanger our troops."
Iranian diplomats yesterday reiterated previous denials that the country was involved in attacks on coalition forces. But Iran has undisputed links to key figures in Iraq's Shia-dominated government and to some of the Shia militias that Mr Bush's 22,000 troop reinforcements are about to target.
In an indication of the way control of Iraq is seen by both sides as the key test in a wider struggle for regional sway, a Tehran foreign ministry spokesman said the Bush plan "is part of the US policy to create a support umbrella for the Zionist regime [Israel] through an Islamic country".
Mr Bush's more confrontational stance also involves the deployment of a second aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf and the supply of Patriot anti-missile batteries to Sunni Muslim Arab allies fearful of the rise of Shia Muslim Iran. In a sign of things to come, US forces yesterday raided an Iranian consulate in Irbil, in northern Iraq, detaining five diplomats.
According to a policy document amplifying Mr Bush's statement, the White House's approach to Iran in the context of Iraq has undergone a "key operational shift". The aim now is to roll back Iranian influence wherever possible - despite the probably negative reaction that might produce among Iraq's majority Shia population.
But the US is also proceeding more aggressively on other fronts. This week saw the expansion of US financial sanctions on Iranian banks that Washington links to weapons proliferation. European and Asian banks and companies are coming under increasing pressure not to do business with Iran, on pain of punitive unilateral action against them by US regulators. And all this comes on top of UN sanctions designed to halt uranium enrichment by Iran.
"By putting additional pressure on Iran, Bush is in tune with his domestic constituency," said Alastair Newton, senior political analyst at Lehman Brothers in London. "But he is also responding to the concerns of America's allies in the region, including both the Arab states and Israel."
Simon Tisdall is an assistant editor of the Guardian and a foreign affairs columnist. He was previously a foreign leader writer for the paper and has also served as its foreign editor and its US editor, based in Washington DC. He was the Observer’s foreign editor from 1996-98.