The Bush administration, alarmed by intelligence suggesting that al Qaeda operatives in Iran had a role in the May 12 suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia, has suspended once-promising contacts with Iran and appears ready to embrace an aggressive policy of trying to destabilize the Iranian government, administration officials said.
Senior Bush administration officials will meet Tuesday at the White House to discuss the evolving strategy toward the Islamic republic, with Pentagon officials pressing hard for public and private actions that they believe could lead to the toppling of the government through a popular uprising, officials said.
The State Department, which had encouraged some form of engagement with the Iranians, appears inclined to accept such a policy, especially if Iran does not take any visible steps to deal with the suspected al Qaeda operatives before Tuesday, officials said. But State Department officials are concerned that the level of popular discontent there is much lower than Pentagon officials believe, leading to the possibility that U.S. efforts could ultimately discredit reformers in Iran.
In any case, the Saudi Arabia bombings have ended the tentative signs of engagement between Iran and the United States that had emerged during the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.
U.S. and Iranian officials had met periodically to discuss issues of mutual concern, including search-and-rescue missions and the tracking down of al Qaeda operatives. But, after the suicide bombings at three residential compounds in Riyadh, the Bush administration canceled the next planned meeting.
"We're headed down the same path of the last 20 years," one State Department official said. "An inflexible, unimaginative policy of just say no."
U.S. officials have also been deeply concerned about Iran's nuclear weapons program, which has the support of both elected reformers and conservative clerics. The Bush administration has pressed the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, to issue a critical report next month on Iran's nuclear activities. Officials have sought to convince Russia and China -- two major suppliers of Iran's nuclear power program -- that Iran is determined to possess nuclear weapons, a campaign that one U.S. official said is winning support.
But a major factor in the new stance toward Iran consists of what have been called "very troubling intercepts" before and after the Riyadh attacks, which killed 34 people, including nine suicide bombers. The intercepts suggested that al Qaeda operatives in Iran were involved in the planning of the bombings.
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld accused Iran of harboring al Qaeda members. "There's no question but that there have been and are today senior al Qaeda leaders in Iran, and they are busy," Rumsfeld said. Iranian officials, however, have vehemently denied that they have granted al Qaeda leaders safe haven in the country.
Until the Saudi bombings, some officials said, Iran had been relatively cooperative on al Qaeda. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Iran has turned over al Qaeda officials to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. In talks, U.S. officials had repeatedly warned Iranian officials that if any al Qaeda operatives in Iran are implicated in attacks against Americans, it would have serious consequences for relations between the two countries.
Those talks, however, were held with representatives of Iran's foreign ministry. Other parts of the Iranian government are controlled not by elected reformers, but by conservative mullahs.
A senior administration official who is skeptical of the Pentagon's arguments said most of the al Qaeda members -- fewer than a dozen -- appear to be located in an isolated area of northeastern Iran, near the border with Afghanistan. He described the area as a drug-smuggling terrorist haven that is tolerated by key members of the Revolutionary Guards in part because they skim money off some of the activities there. It is not clear how much control the central Iranian government has over this area, he said.
"I don't think the elected government knows much about it," he said. "Why should you punish the rest of Iran," he asked, just because the government cannot act in this area?
Flynt Leverett, who recently left the White House to join the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said the administration may be taking a gamble. "It is imprudent to assume that the Islamic Republic will collapse like a house of cards in a time frame that is going to be meaningful to us," he said. "What it means is we will end up with an Iran that has nuclear weapons and no dialogue with the United States with regard to our terrorist concerns."
Ever since President Bush labeled Iran last year as part of an "axis of evil" -- along with North Korea and Iraq -- the administration has struggled to define its policy toward the Islamic republic, which terminated relations with the United States after Iran's 1979 revolution. The administration never formally adopted a policy of "regime change," but it also never seriously tried to establish a dialogue.
In July, Bush signaled a harder line when he issued a strongly worded presidential statement in which he praised large pro-democracy street demonstrations in Iran. Administration officials said at the time that they had abandoned any hope of working with President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist allies in the Iranian government, and would turn their attention toward democracy supporters among the Iranian people.
But the prospect of war with Iraq reopened some discreet contacts, which took place under U.N. supervision in Europe. The contacts encouraged some in the State Department to believe that there was an opening for greater cooperation.
In an interview in February with the Los Angeles Times, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage drew a distinction between the confrontational approach the administration had taken with Iraq and North Korea and the approach it had adopted with Iran. "The axis of evil was a valid comment, [but] I would note there's one dramatic difference between Iran and the other two axes of evil, and that would be its democracy. [And] you approach a democracy differently," Armitage said.
At one of the meetings, in early January, the United States signaled that it would target the Iraq-based camps of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), or People's Mujaheddin, a major group opposing the Iranian government.
The MEK soon became caught up in the policy struggle between the State Department and the Pentagon.
After the camps were bombed, the U.S. military arranged a cease-fire with the group, infuriating the Iranians. Some Pentagon officials, impressed by the military discipline and equipment of the thousands of MEK troops, began to envision them as a potential military force for use against Tehran, much like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.
But the MEK is also listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department. Under pressure from State, the White House earlier this month ordered the Pentagon to disarm the MEK troops -- a decision that was secretly conveyed by U.S. officials to Iranian representatives at a meeting in Geneva on May 3.
Nine days later, the suicide bombers struck in Saudi Arabia.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company