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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 22:14 GMT 23:14 UK
Is Iran next after Iraq?

By Justin Webb
BBC Correspondent in Washington

Is Iran next? That is the question being posed with increasing urgency in Washington, amid rumours of a new tougher stand by the Bush administration - a stand that could conceivably end in an Iraq-style standoff, perhaps even in a war.

Anti-US protest in Tehran
Iranians are expressing anger at the US pressure

Iran is already of course officially part of President Bush's "axis of evil" - but recently its nuclear programme, its alleged harbouring of al-Qaeda members, and its alleged dabbling in Iraqi affairs, have been used as ammunition by the Bush hawks.

And they seem to be looking for action to follow the rhetoric.

Only months ago some were wondering whether Iran and the US might be heading for a diplomatic rapprochement - now the talk is of a return to the deep freeze.

A few evenings ago outside the State Department, reporters gathered to ambush Secretary of State Colin Powell as he entered the building. Was he aware of reports of a new tough administration policy towards Iran? Was he on board?

Mr Powell's response: Nothing has changed, there is no new policy, just a lot of reports he "found difficult to source".

But that, as Mr Powell knows, does not mean they are not true.

The administration's principle dove has been wrong footed before.

Are the hawks plotting again behind his back?

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as usual, drops the biggest hints. He said recently that it was a fact that al-Qaeda terrorists were living in Iran and were being allowed to work there.

Donald Rumsfeld
Mr Rumsfeld: Dropping the biggest hints
None of the Iranian denials seem to cut any ice with him.

But Mr Rumsfeld is by no means alone when draws attention to Iran's alleged misdemeanours.

The senior Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman, says Tehran should have been the focus of attention all along.

She cites Iran's nuclear programme, which the Iranians say is a peaceful one, and Tehran's long term support for the militants of Hezbollah based in Lebanon.

Congresswoman Harman does not want military action.

But there are persistent rumours that a meeting will be held soon, involving the secretary of state, the defence secretary and others, to flesh out new harder line policy options falling short of a military strike.

'Terrorist organisation'

Raymond Tanter was a member of President Reagan's national security staff and is now a Washington-based policy analyst.

He says those policy options may well include covert action to help the opposition groups.

At least one of those groups was designated a terrorist organisation by the Bush administration - a designation that could change.

The president's press spokesman Ari Fleischer does not go down that road but he makes it plain that the official policy is that some Iranians want to change their government and they are worthy of support.

Iran, he says, is a country with many young people and they will be the ones who sort the nation out.

Whether they will do that with American help the Bush administration is not yet saying, but the idea of providing some assistance from Washington is gaining ground.


SEE ALSO:
Analysis: US talks tough to Iran
28 May 03  |  Middle East
Iran press responds to US threats
28 May 03  |  Middle East
Analysis: Iran-US rift widens
25 May 03  |  Middle East


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