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U.S. Will ‘Respond Firmly’ as Iran Seeks Greater Role in Iraq

President Bush said Monday that the United States would "respond firmly" to Iran's intentions to expand its economic and military ties with Iraq, as outlined by Iran's ambassador to Baghdad. Analysts discuss the possible outcomes.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    As the war in Iraq has continued to deteriorate, U.S. criticism of the neighboring country of Iran has only grown. The antipathy between the two nations has been fueled by heated rhetoric from Iranian President Ahmadinejad, by disputes over Iran's nuclear ambitions, and by President Bush's recent pledge to "seek out and destroy" Iranian networks providing weapons to armed militia in Iraq.

    The jabs and the counter jabs continued today, with Iran's ambassador to Baghdad promising increased involvement, and President Bush telling National Public Radio that would be unacceptable.

    GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But how much of this is a diplomatic dance and how much a prelude to more serious action?

    To help us figure that out, we are joined by Gary Sick, acting director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. He served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He has written two books on U.S.-Iranian relations.

    And Salameh Nematt is the Washington bureau chief of the Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat and of LBC, an Arab satellite channel based in Lebanon. He is a Jordanian citizen.

    Gary Sick, we have noticed and marked this increasing rhetoric on both sides. What is it all about?

    GARY SICK, Middle East Institute at Columbia University: Well, I think it's part of a broader strategy, which actually has been under way now for several months, which involves basically the United States building a new coalition in the Middle East, between itself and Israel, and some of the conservative Arab states, the Sunni Arab states.

    And the essence of that is that they are all aligned together to face the threat from Iran. And that, I think, is the centerpiece of what is really the new U.S. strategy, which has several prongs to it. But one is — it basically changes the subject from Iraq to Iran. And I think a lot of people feel more comfortable with that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So a lot of the suspicion in the United States, among people who pay attention to these things, has been that the United States is laying the groundwork for an invasion of Iran, something the president once again denied today. You don't think that's the case either?

  • GARY SICK:

    I actually do not. I think, if either the United States or Israel, for that matter, were planning a unilateral strike, a lot of things would not be happening.

    For one thing, we wouldn't be talking about it every 15 minutes publicly, because if you're really planning a strike, you don't want to telegraph your punches in such great detail.

    So I think actually — and also I think any kind of an action in Iran would be so catastrophic, in terms of its cost, the size of the country, its nationalism, that it would actually make Iraq look simple by comparison. And I think people in Washington know that.

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