WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush is trying to convince the world he has no intention of invading Iran, but is running into skeptics who see U.S. charges that Iran is shipping bombs into Iraq as a step toward conflict.
Having ordered two aircraft carriers to the Gulf and accused Iranians of providing Iraqi militants bombs that have killed 170 Americans, Bush and his top aides are struggling to tamp down talk that a new war is brewing.
Bush himself prompted the talk in a January 10 speech outlining his reworked Iraq strategy, by saying “Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces.”
A debate has since raged over whether he has an attack on Iran in mind. “Next Stop Iran?” asked The Economist magazine’s cover this week over a picture of a U.S. military aircraft in flight.
The White House sees tensions with Iran over its nuclear ambitions as a separate issue from Tehran’s alleged bomb supplies in Iraq.
Bush wants the nuclear issue resolved diplomatically, but has authorized U.S. forces to capture or kill Iranians involved in attacks on Americans or Iraqis inside Iraq.
“We’re not getting ready for war on Iran, but what we are doing is we’re protecting our own people. And we’re going to do it. And we’ve made it clear that that is going to be a priority,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said on Monday.
Democrats say they fear a repeat of 2002 and 2003, when Bush made a case for war against Iraq based on weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
“That’s how we got into the mess in Iraq. That’s why some of us supported those resolutions because of doctored information. So I’m very skeptical based on recent past history about this administration leading us in that direction,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd, a presidential hopeful, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
When Bush hears arguments like that, he sees a political attack from Democrats who want their party to claim the White House in 2008.
“I guess my reaction to all the noise about ‘he wants to go to war’ — first of all I don’t understand the tactics. I guess I would say it’s political,” Bush told C-SPAN on Monday.
The White House says some of the war talk is being driven by a news media hungry for the next big story.
“I don’t think there’s a change of tone on our part. I think that there have been attempts, with all due respect, in the press, to try to whip this up — ‘Is the administration going after Iran?’” said Snow.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Iran war debate appeared to be driven by Democrats looking for an issue and neoconservatives who would like to see regime change in Tehran.
“It’s quite clear from the content that they are trying to stop the flow of money and arms (into Iraq), not trying to provide a war with Iran. If anything, the signals are more about deterrence than anything else,” he said.
The Bush administration is trying to walk a fine line between threatening Iran over its alleged bomb supplies in Iraq, which Tehran denies, and underscoring its reliance on diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
On the issue of Iranian bombs in Iraq, U.S. officials are adamant that the evidence is true. “The Iranians are up to their eyeballs in this activity,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed