The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, said yesterday the deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf could serve as a "reminder" to Iran of American resolve to defend its interests in the region.
Gates denied the arrival of a new carrier represented an escalation, pointing out that US naval strength in the Gulf rises and falls constantly with routine naval deployments, but it comes at a time of heightened rhetoric from Washington about Iran's role in the Iraqi insurgency.
In the next few days US officers in Baghdad are expected to mount a display of recently-made Iranian arms alleged to have been seized from insurgents.
CBS News reported the Pentagon has ordered commanders to explore new options for attacking Iran and that the state department was formulating an ultimatum calling on Iran to stop arms smuggling into Iraq. The reports were denied by US officials.
In the past few days senior administration officials have made a series of pointed remarks about the Iranian role in Iraq. Gates himself claimed: "What the Iranians are doing is killing American servicemen and women inside Iraq."
During a visit to Mexico the defence secretary was asked if the carrier deployment was coordinated with the rhetoric from Washington. He replied: "I don't see it as an escalation. I think it could be seen, though, as a reminder."
The tough talk on Iran comes just before a meeting of ministers from the permanent five members of the UN security council and Germany to discuss incentives for Iran to suspend its work on uranium enrichment.
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The focus on incentives reflects a realisation in London and Washington that there is not sufficient support in the Security Council for more sanctions against Iran. However, the new package is unlikely to differ from the one currently on the table, which includes economic incentives, help with the establishment of a nuclear energy programme based on technology that does not have military applications, and direct talks with the US on a range of strategic issues.
Security Council officials spoke yesterday in terms of the incentives being "refreshed" rather than enhanced. Few diplomatic observers believe they will have any more impact than the sanctions imposed so far.
Tehran insists its nuclear programme is intended for purely peaceful energy generation, and claims it is within its rights to pursue its development. Earlier this month Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad signalled his defiance of the Security Council by visiting the country's nuclear facility at Natanz to inspect a new upgraded centrifuge, the IR-2, capable of enriching uranium faster than the earlier model bought from Pakistan.
In official pictures Iran's defence minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, can be seen taking part in the tour. His participation was highlighted by some western officials, who argued it conflicted with Iran's insistence that the programme is for exclusively peaceful purposes.
Vincent Cannistraro, a former senior CIA official now a security analyst, said the conflicting signals coming from Washington reflected longstanding divisions in the Bush administration, that have not been resolved by the publication of a National Intelligence Estimate last year that Iran's weapons programme had been dormant since 2003. The NIE has been privately disowned by President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, who still leads the remaining hawks in the administration.
"Cheney believes this administration has to take military action against Iran before it leaves office. Gates echoes the rhetoric publicly but he doesn't support Cheney's position," Cannistraro said.
© 2008 The Guardian