- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2007

The Pentagon began building up its military presence in the Persian Gulf, including defensive Patriot missiles, after friendly Arab states privately expressed alarm over Iran’s increasingly bellicose pronouncements.

Some in the administration began to fear that unless Washington reassured the Gulf states, it would lose their support at a critical juncture in the Iraq war. Without the support of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other predominately Sunni Muslim countries, achieving reconciliation in Iraq would be much more difficult, defense sources said.

“The threat Iran represents is growing. It’s multidimensional. And it is, in fact, of concern to everybody in the region,” Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday on Fox News.

President Bush last week, in announcing a new strategy for Iraq, laid out what the administration considers a tough, two-pronged move against Tehran’s radical regime. He said the U.S. would actively target Iranian saboteurs in Iraq. Hours later, American commandos raided an Iranian office in Irbil, north of Baghdad, and took five Iranians into custody.

The second prong involves sending two aircraft carriers to the region, plus the anti-missile Patriots, military training and new equipment. This move was aimed not just at sending a message to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. More importantly, defense sources said, it was meant to calm jittery Gulf countries.

“This is all designed to deter Iran and assure our allies,” one source said. “They are very worried about Iran and its nuclear program.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad has threatened to destroy Israel, and his regime is widely perceived to be developing nuclear weapons.

But the sources insisted that the Gulf escalation is not a first step toward war with Iran. “That’s nonsense,” one source said. “No decision has been made about military programs.”

A second source said that taking Iranian saboteurs captive in Iraq gives the U.S. “leverage” with Iran. Suddenly, the regime wants something from the U.S. — the release of its people. But it is not a negotiating tool, the source said. Rather, it just shows the regime there is a cost for its meddling.

Some in the Pentagon think Iran is at war with the U.S., using Shi’ite militia proxies to attack American service members. Iran’s al-Quds, a special-operations arm of the regime’s Revolutionary Guards, is supplying the Iraqis with weapons, money and training, U.S. officials said.

Because war with Iran was not an option on the table, the sources said, the next best move was to begin capturing Iranians.

“I think the message that the president sent clearly is that we do not want them doing what they can to try to destabilize the situation inside Iraq,” Mr. Cheney said. “We think it’s very important that they keep their folks at home.”

A defense source said the administration, after months of intelligence assessments, has concluded that Iran’s intervention in Iraq was based on decisions made at the highest governmental levels in Tehran and not a rogue operation.

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