A first sign of an impending war of words over Iran came in late August. In an Internet blog, professor Barnett Rubin, a highly respected authority on Afghanistan at New York University, said a Bush administration insider told him there would be an "Iran war rollout" in the media in September.
Yet it was in Paris, not Washington, that perhaps the first salvo in the war of words with Iran was fired -- a drumbeat of rising rhetoric over the last month that Admiral William Fallon, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, has called "not helpful" and "not useful."
On August 27, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking to a group of French diplomats, called a nuclear-armed Iran "unacceptable." He added: "I underline France's full determination to support the alliance's current policy of increasing sanctions, but also to remain open if Iran makes the choice to fulfill its obligations. This policy is the only one that will allow us to escape an alternative, which I consider to be catastrophic. Which alternative? An Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran."
Iran Media Blitz
As if on cue, the language of U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking the very next day, also took a confrontational turn toward Tehran.
"Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust," Bush told a gathering of U.S. war veterans. "Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will confront this danger before it is too late."
Publicly, Bush has refused to take military action off the table if Iran does not comply with UN Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend its uranium enrichment programs.
Led by the United States, the Western powers are seeking to pass a third round of even tougher Security Council sanctions against Iran. However, at a meeting today in New York, the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany agreed to delay a vote on tougher sanctions until late November at the earliest.
That outcome is a setback to U.S. and French efforts, yet their cooperation still signals a key break from the recent past.
Unlike during the Iraq war run-up, when France voiced fierce opposition to toppling Saddam Hussein, this time Paris is backing up Bush with tough talk of its own.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner weighed in with perhaps even stronger words than his boss, stating on September 16 that the world should brace for war with Iran if negotiations to end its nuclear program fail. Although he later tempered his comments, Kouchner and Sarkozy's rhetoric starkly contrasts with that of former French President Jacques Chirac, whose vocal opposition to war with Iraq dealt a blow to U.S.-France relations.
So what’s motivated France to talk tough now? Jean-Pierre Darnis, a political analyst at the University of Nice and Rome's Institute of Foreign Affairs, says the new French leader is partly motivated by a genuine desire to repair relations with Washington. Darnis adds that France clearly wants to avoid war with Iran, but sees its threat as a necessary prod to change Tehran’s behavior.
"Sarkozy said: 'I don't like the word war. I don't want to use the word war,' after Kouchner [used the word]," Darnis says. "But nevertheless, he is very open to a large panel of actions against Iran."
On September 25 at the UN General Assembly in New York, Sarkozy reiterated that an Iranian nuclear bomb would be an "unacceptable risk to stability in the region and in the world." He was echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said, “If Iran were to acquire the nuclear bomb, the consequences would be disastrous."
Robert Whitman, who studies European foreign policy at London’s Chatham House think tank, says the tough talk from Paris, and to a lesser extent Berlin, is partly aimed at permanent UN Security Council members China and Russia to persuade them to drop their opposition to new Iran sanctions since the alternative -- namely, war -- should appear so much worse to them.
But Whitman adds that Sarkozy’s rhetoric should also be taken at face value -- that is, it reflects genuine French concern over the danger of Iran’s nuclear program:
"I think that’s partly why the French have been using the language why they have, because they think the Iran case is a very serious test of the credibility of the international nonproliferation regime for nuclear weapons," Whitman says. "And I think that their analysis is that it will have grave consequences for nuclear proliferation in the Middle East if Iran is not stopped. And the French do believe that they are being a responsible international citizen by bearing down on the Iranians."
But what about the Iranians? Are they, too, somehow served by all the war talk?
Speaking on September 25 at the UN, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad vowed Tehran would continue to defy any UN resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program. He said the nuclear question was "closed" as a political issue and that Iran would pursue the monitoring of its nuclear program "through its appropriate legal path," the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog.
British analyst Whitman says the media circus that accompanied Ahmadinejad’s trip to the United States, along with the hard-line rhetoric against him, may actually be helping him in his domestic political battles back home. "Certainly, in terms of external criticism of the regime, and particularly criticism in the U.S., this will obviously assist him in terms of his struggle against moderates in Tehran," Whitman says.
Others have noted that every time the Iranian crisis escalates, the price of oil increases, further filling petroleum-rich Tehran's coffers.
The war drums have also been beating in the right-wing U.S. media, particularly among those "neoconservative" pundits who pushed successfully for the Iraq invasion and now reportedly seek to topple the clerical regime in Iran. Reports say their pro-Iran war views may be shared at least in part by Vice President Dick Cheney and others in the Bush administration.
According to the U.S. magazine "Newsweek," in its October 1 edition, David Wurmser, a former adviser to Cheney on the Middle East, was considering a plan to press Israel to strike Iranian nuclear targets in a move that could bring the United States into a war with Tehran. Wurmser, in remarks today to the "New York Sun" daily, categorically denied those allegations.
But in a clear signal of the mood in Washington, this week the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that would tighten sanctions on Iran. The bill, which passed by a vote of 397 to 16, also calls on the U.S. government to list Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist group. The bill calls for sanctions against foreign companies that have U.S. subsidiaries who invest in Iran's energy sector.
A day later, the U.S. Senate passed a similar nonbinding resolution on Iran. Critics such as Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia said the motion "could be read as a tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran."
But if the martial rhetoric serves the interests of "hawks" in Washington, some say it also aides "hawks" in the Middle East opposed to Iran’s ascendance in the region.
Independent author Robert Baer, who spent two decades in the Muslim world as a case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, predicted in a recent article for the website of the U.S. magazine "Time" that there would be a military strike against Iran "within six months."
Last week, U.S. Admiral Fallon told Al-Jazeera television that he believed there would not be war with Iran, and called the war talk unhelpful. Similiarly, General John Abizaid, Fallon's predecessor as chief U.S. commander in the Middle East, said this month that while every effort should be made to stop Iran's apparent march toward nuclear weapons, the world could live with and deter a nuclear-armed Iran.
Baer, for his part, contends that part of the Bush administration, led by Cheney, wants to strike Iran for a number of reasons including the nuclear threat, Shi’ite Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and the region, its ties to terrorism, and its alleged threat to Sunni regimes friendly to Washington, such as Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis "are saying basically, if you want to keep your 10 million barrels or 9 million barrels [of oil] a day flowing freely in international markets, and keeping the price relatively low on oil, you better come to our protection," Baer recently said. "You better do something about Iran. And they’re telling us, or what they’re telling me, is that you have to decapitate the Iranian regime."
Today's UN talks in New York effectively gave the green light for IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei to carry on in his efforts to try and clear up doubts about Iran's past nuclear activities. El-Baradei recently gave Iran three months to clear its record in a move criticized by Washington as a tactic to stall sanctions and evade the key issue of halting enrichment.
Reports say the Western powers are considering their own economic and political sanctions against Iran, should efforts to pass a new resolution in the Security Council prove fruitless.
Where the Iran story ultimately goes is anyone’s guess. But as September 2007 draws to a close, some have recalled a famous remark by former White House chief of staff Andrew Card.
About Washington’s Iraq media blitz in September 2002, a half-year before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Card said, "From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August."