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May 21, 2003

U.S. says Iranian threat growing

Israel has long maintained that Iran was their biggest threat. The US, now aware of the potential threat from Iran, is uncertain what to do about it.
It [Iran] appears to be intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. It's stepped up its biological and chemical arms programs. It's No. 1 on the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors, and intelligence officials say it's harboring some senior al-Qaida leaders.

Iran, some senior administration officials privately concede, is as big a threat to the United States and American interests as Iraq ever was, probably bigger. But they don't want to talk about Iran because, they admit, they don't know what to do about it.

Even among the Bush administration hard-liners who first pushed to topple Saddam Hussein, there's no consensus about how to deal with the Iranian regime, which, as former CIA director James Woolsey puts it, has been "at war with us for nearly a quarter-century."

"They seized our embassy personnel as hostages in 1979 in Tehran. They blew up our embassy and our Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. And they have conducted a wide range of terrorist acts against the United States," Woolsey has said.

Now, U.S. intelligence officials charge, Iran is trying to undermine American efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. There is evidence that Saif al Adel, a senior al-Qaida leader, has found sanctuary in Iran and helped direct last week's bombings in Saudi Arabia, which killed 34 people, eight of them Americans. He and other al-Qaida operatives may be planning further attacks in Saudi Arabia, Kenya and elsewhere, U.S. officials say.

But the American response to the third member of President Bush's "axis of evil," along with Iraq and North Korea, is unlikely to be war, at least not anytime soon.

"I don't see any pressure for conflict or war," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research center, who's served in both the State and Defense departments.

America's options in Iran are limited. The U.S. military has its hands full in Iraq.

And unlike with Iraq, the U.N. Security Council hasn't ordered Iran to dispose of weapons of mass destruction.

The Iranian government is even harder to deal with, administration officials say, because it's set a new standard for divided government.

President Mohammad Khatami and his supporters in the Iranian Parliament deny that Iran is supporting terrorism or harboring al-Qaida renegades. The Shiite Muslim clerics who hold supreme power and their allies in the Revolutionary Guard, meanwhile, underwrite terrorist groups, shelter their leaders and send weapons to Palestinian terrorists.

"When we ask the Iranians we talk to about these activities, they say they don't know anything about them," said one senior U.S. official, who like the others spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The ones who do know about them are not the ones we talk to." [more]