If you read the liberal blogosphere, and even the stately New Yorker magazine, you get the impression that the Bush administration is itching to drop a bomb on Iran. But talking with senior administration officials this week, I hear a different line:
They worry about Iranian actions, and they are disappointed that diplomatic overtures to Iran so far have resulted in little progress. They believe that Washington and Tehran remain on a collision course over Iran's nuclear program and its destabilizing activities in Iraq. But senior officials say they are seeking to avoid military conflict.
The administration wants Iran to make a strategic shift -- by changing its nuclear policy so that it doesn't have the potential to make weapons, stopping its support for terrorism and working with the United States to stabilize Iraq. Officials continue to believe that the regime is capable of such a shift, despite its internal divisions. But they have concluded that Iran won't bargain unless it feels more pressure -- from tougher economic sanctions and from credible threats of military power.
The bottom line, officials say, is that the United States must avoid a future situation in which its only options are to accept a nuclear Iran or go to war.
The biggest danger, some U.S. officials believe, is that the Iranians don't take U.S. power seriously. Tehran sees the Bush administration as so bogged down in Iraq that, to quote a famous line of Ayatollah Khomeini's, "America cannot do a damned thing." The administration hopes this year's surge of U.S. troops in Iraq will convince the Iranians that America is not quite so exhausted a superpower as they might have imagined.
To increase leverage, administration officials are following several paths simultaneously. First, they want to maintain a broad coalition against the Iranian nuclear program at the United Nations, even if the price of consensus is weak U.N. sanctions. The mere fact that Russia and China remain allied with the United States troubles Iran, officials believe. The real economic pressure will come from unilateral measures: U.S. financial sanctions already limit Iran's ability to use the global banking system, and the European Union, pushed by France, appears ready to follow suit.
Military force is harder to gauge. President Bush continues to insist that all options are on the table, and there is planning for a range of possibilities. Some options would focus on the al-Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most militant faction in the jumble that is the Iranian regime. But one knowledgeable official argues that any "surgical strikes" against the al-Quds Force, as discussed by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, would come only in response to a high-casualty attack -- say, on U.S. forces in Iraq -- that could be traced to Iran.
A powerful, albeit silent, demonstration of military power was Israel's Sept. 6 strike against a target in Syria, Iran's key ally. An informed official told me it was an attack on nuclear materials supplied to Syria by North Korea, and that the United States and Israel had shared information before the raid. The silence from all parties has been deafening, but the message to Iran is clear: America and Israel can identify nuclear targets and penetrate air defenses to destroy them.
Officials say that despite rising U.S.-Iranian tensions, they want to maintain an open path to dialogue -- "a way out, a way to go to a better world," in one formulation. On the nuclear front, the vehicle for compromise might be Russia's proposal for joint enrichment of uranium. On Iraq, it's joint meetings in Baghdad to discuss security problems -- a diplomatic door that the administration stresses is still open despite the lack of progress in the first two meetings this summer.
What's worrying is that this is still a game of chicken -- two cars coming at each other on a narrow, poorly lit road. To avoid a collision, America and Iran will have to speak a language of compromise in which neither, so far, has shown much fluency.