Iran and the U.S.: The Feud Is Getting Scary

For a quarter century, the U.S. and Iran have engaged in a bitter feud that has damaged both countries. Efforts to end the bad blood have been in vain. Now the dispute threatens to escalate to a new and more dangerous level as Washington and Tehran face off over a host of issues -- from Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program to suspicions that it is interfering in efforts to stabilize Iraq. There's "an exacerbation of tension in U.S.-Iranian relations," acknowledges M. Javad Zarif, Iran's permanent representative to the U.N.

The next several weeks could see a further ratcheting up of such tensions. On June 16, the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, will meet to discuss a report on Iran's nuclear activities. Washington, which fears that Iran's nuclear energy program is really a secret weapons program, is urging the board to declare Iran in violation of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty -- a move that could pave the way to a Security Council debate over new sanctions on Iran.

Whether or not that happens -- Iranian officials insist their nuclear program is peaceful -- the White House is contemplating a range of other steps. While unlikely, as extreme a move as a surgical military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities is a possibility, says an Administration official. Washington may also bolster support for Iranian opposition groups, including up to $50 million in aid. The Administration hopes a modest push would topple a regime that officials such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld consider to be unpopular and vulnerable. Even reformist President Mohammed Khatami is seen as a failure by the Bush team.

Attacking Iran would be a high-risk move for the U.S. Military action could drive a wedge between the U.S. and Britain, which has worked to improve relations with Khatami. Tehran could react by asking its friends in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon to stir up trouble for the U.S., from protests to direct attacks on U.S. forces. Iran "can destabilize Iraq in a matter of days," says Nasser Hadian, a Tehran University professor and visiting scholar at Columbia University.

Other observers hope cooler heads will prevail. Zarif, the Iranian U.N. ambassador, says he believes that "in the final analysis some type of rationality will prevail in Washington" that would lead to a greater "readiness to understand" Iran's position. Ironically, only a few weeks ago, there were signs of a thaw. Iranian and American officials sat down for talks on Iraq and Afghanistan before and after the Iraq war. The discussions, described by officials involved as "useful," could have been a first, small step toward improving ties. They could also have led to an Iranian agreement to avoid destructive meddling in Iraq and instead help stabilize the country. As the established Shiite power in the region, Iran could play a positive role.

But the suicide bombings in Riyadh in May undermined the good will. Accusing the Iranians of harboring al Qaeda operatives, which Iran denies, the Administration suspended the talks, and the atmosphere quickly degenerated. For now, neither side seems willing to make concessions needed to halt the spiral. The next few months could show whether the Iranian government is strong enough to survive a stern test, or is another house of cards.

By Stanley Reed in London, with Babak Pirouz in Tehran and Stan Crock in Washington

Edited by Rose Brady

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