On January 10, Bush unveiled a new strategy for Iraq that includes sending more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops to the country. But the real import of his new Iraq plan may be a fresh focus on Iran and Syria.
"These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq," Bush said. "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will 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."
Something To Prove?
Indeed, the day after Bush spoke, U.S. forces arrested six Iranians in the Iraqi city of Irbil, accusing them of involvement in attacks against Iraqi civilians and military forces. Iran has vehemently protested the arrest and demanded the release of the five still being held.
Since the president's speech, several senior U.S. officials have reiterated Bush's focus on Iran and its ally Syria.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking on January 15 in Brussels, suggested that the United States has something to prove to Iran.
"The Iranians clearly believe that we are tied down in Iraq, that they have the initiative, that they are in a position to press us in many ways," he said. "They're doing nothing to be constructive in Iraq at this point."
But targeting Iranian and Syrian operatives in Iraq appears to be only part of the new strategy.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just completed a tour of the region. It included a meeting with Sunni Arab foreign ministers in Kuwait that analysts called an effort to build an alliance to back U.S. stabilization efforts in Iraq and containment of Iran.
Another Carrier Group
But the most eye-catching part of the latest development is a large-scale buildup of U.S. military force in the region.
In the last week, the United States has confirmed the imminent arrival in the Persian Gulf of a second aircraft carrier strike force, as well as Patriot antimissile systems.
"There is a buildup here," says Anthony Cordesman, a former senior U.S. defense official who is now a military and Middle East analyst. "It is a buildup to deal with issues like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq; with the fact that if you are going to be much more active in dealing with Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias, you may indeed need considerably more airpower."
The "USS John C. Stennis" strike group will join the "USS Dwight D. Eisenhower" aircraft-carrier group later this month in what the U.S. Navy called "a warning to Syria and Iran" in the face of acts seen as provocative.
The new strike force will give Washington 16,000 sailors in the region, as well as another nuclear carrier, seven escort warships, 10 air squadrons, 2 submarines, and helicopters to support amphibious landings.
Also this week, reports from Turkey say 16 American F-16 fighter jets have recently arrived at the country's southern Incirlik air base. Officially, they are there for exercises with Turkish NATO forces, but the timing of their arrival and proximity to Iraq and Iran have not been lost upon observers.
Finally, for the first time in history, a Navy officer has been put in charge of U.S. Central Command. Admiral William Fallon, an expert in air warfare, will be tasked with overseeing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Iran will also be part of his purview.
Concerns About Spreading Conflict
All these developments have helped spark a frenzy of media speculation: Is the United States, perhaps with Israel, moving toward military action against Iran?
U.S. lawmakers this week voiced concern the Iraq war could spread to Iran or Syria if U.S. troops chased militants across the border.
But White House spokesman Tony Snow on January 17 insisted the plan is limited to Iraq.
That point has been reiterated by General Peter Pace, the top U.S. military official -- an assurance that Cordesman believes to be sincere:
"Iran certainly is able to play a spoiler role in the region," Cordesman says. "It's able to use proxies like the Hizballah and extremist movements, its ties to Syria and to Iraqi militias raise issues. But it is a long way from being a major regional power and certainly one that can challenge anybody as long as the United States and its regional allies resist."
How Close Is Iran To Nukes?
Cordesman suggests that some have exaggerated the Iranian threat, including the timing of when Iran might ever acquire nuclear weapons.
"It is probably only going to have nuclear weapons, if it has them, well after 2010," he says. "Its missile programs, while they continue to grow and become more sophisticated, still are largely in the development phase and do not have a good track record of tests. Its overall arms modernization can't even cope with the growing obsolescence of its existing arms. So as a military power, it is declining, not rising."
But others beg to differ.
Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have made no secret of their concerns that Iran is close to obtaining nuclear weapons. They see that as a mortal threat, given Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's frequent virulent anti-Israeli statements.
A January 6 report in the "Times" of London said Israel has a secret plan to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities by using low-yield nuclear weapons. Israel immediately denied that story.
Other analysts say the U.S. military buildup and Fallon's appointment make sense if seen as steps toward striking Iran's nuclear facilities.
Cordesman is not one of them. He says the buildup, while significant, still wouldn't be enough to launch a serious campaign against Iran.
Iranian Shi'a protesting the Golden Mosque Bombing in Iraq on February 24
WHAT IS GOING ON? On March 8, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable discussion on relations between Iraq and Iran. Although most analysts agree that Iran has been actively involved in Iraq since the U.S.-led military operation to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, they continue to debate the nature, extent, and intent of that involvement.
The RFE/RL briefing featured WAYNE WHITE, former deputy director of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research's Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia, and A. WILLIAM SAMII, RFE/RL's regional analyst for Iran and editor of the "RFE/RL Iran Report."
LISTENListen to the complete RFE/RL briefing (about 75 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media