US-Iran tensions threaten to boil over

Clash possible as Teheran faces more sanctions after IAEA nuclear report.

IT HAS all the ingredients of a perfect storm.

The stage is set for tensions to escalate between the United States and Iran after the United Nations nuclear watchdog declared on Thursday that Teheran had forged ahead with efforts to develop a programme for highly enriched uranium.

The damning report by Mr Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), provided a confirmation that Iran recently began installing the first of 3,000 gas centrifuges in a heavily fortified underground chamberat Natanz.

It plans to “bring them gradually into operation by May 2007”. Such a facility could produce enough uranium in a year to build a nuclear warhead. Washington’s response was swift and immediate.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Iran it would face more punishment and isolation if it went ahead with its controversial nuclear activities. But she maintained that the US and other world powers were prepared to restart talks aimed at ending the stand-off if Teheran suspended its nuclear programme.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns will travel to London on Monday to meet negotiating partners to try to draft a new resolution on Iran. Indeed, even before the report was issued, the US, its European allies, Russia and China had begun discussing a new round of penalties.

“We have the common goal to encourage Iran back to the bargaining table,” Dr Rice said following a meeting in Berlin with her counterparts from Russia, Germany and the European Union.

“The hope is that the sanctions show the Iranians the isolation that they are enduring, that the isolation is likely to increase over time and that it is time to take a different course.”

While the diplomatic efforts were being explored, Washington was building up its military forces in the Gulf with its recent dispatch of two aircraft carriers to the region.

It was a clear message to Teheran, with its ambitions to become a regional power, not to test US resolve despite American forces being stretched in Iraq.

There have been concerns that Iran has taken its war games manoeuvres over the past year into busy shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which two-fifths of the world’s oil supplies pass.

Such moves have alarmed US officials about possible confrontations that could boil over into war.

Vice-Admiral Patrick Walsh, the top US Navy commander in the Middle East, this week highlighted to reporters the growing Iranian threat: “They threaten to use oil as a weapon. They threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz. And so it is the combination of the rhetoric, the tone and the aggressive exercises in very constrained waters that gives us concern.”

According to a BBC report this week, senior officials at the US Central Command in Florida have already selected their targets inside Iran. These include Iranian air and naval bases, missile facilities and command-and-control centres.

US officials have been careful not to rule out the possibility of US action inside Iran.

Pressed on the ABC News programme This Week recently about excluding the option of going after Iranians inside their own country, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said that for now, Iraq was “the best place” for the US to take on the Iranians.

“So, you do not believe you have the authority to go into Iran?” programme host George Stephanopoulos asked. “I did not say that,” Mr Hadley responded.

Clearly, the US does not have a casus belli at this point. But with the troop build-up, accidental confrontations – such as in the Hormuz Strait – could spark a full-scale war.

And Iran is giving the hawks in Washington every reason to pull the trigger by providing more smoking guns for a confrontation.

By claiming that Iran is behind troop killings in Iraq, the US could lay the basis for self-defence, drawing strong parallels to the rhetoric used by the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

That message gained momentum with another revelation on Wednesday: The use of crude chlorine bombs in Iraq that have killed up to 11 people.

A key consideration in all this will be Israel’s response. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, commenting on the IAEA findings, said that the Iranians were much farther down the path to making a nuclear bomb than Tel Aviv was comfortable with.

This might only encourage Israel to lean closer towards military action.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN

“They threaten to use oil as a weapon. They threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz. And so it is the combination of the rhetoric, the tone and the aggressive exercises in very constrained waters that gives us concern.”
VICE-ADMIRAL PATRICK WALSH, the top US Navy commander in the Middle East

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