Is Iran next? That question has been all the buzz since Vice President Dick Cheney focused a spotlight on the country's nuclear program just hours before last week's inauguration. The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh fueled the speculation with his report that U.S. forces already are on the ground in Iran. Not surprisingly, the world press has been all over the story, which became a significant strand in the extensive coverage of the beginning of President Bush's second term.
When Cheney, speaking on MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, said "Iran is right at the top of the list" of global potential trouble spots, he unleashed a new round of speculation about the Bush administration's plans for the Islamic republic. Interviewer Don Imus asked, "Why don't we make Israel do it?" and the VP's response sent talking heads babbling uncontrollably. "Well," Cheney said, "one of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked, that if, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards."
That, coupled with Bush's frequent use of the word "freedom" in his inauguration address, has framed the international press's coverage of the president's second-term agenda.
"ARE WE REALLY GOING TO BOMB IRAN?" blared the headline in the British Daily Mirror. The article left no doubt as to the unpopularity of such a plan among citizens in the country that has been America's strongest ally in the Iraq war. "We followed him into one bloody and pointless war—and now George W. Bush is rattling his sabre at Iran," the column began. "Many believe that the President's inauguration speech last week laid out a blueprint for an era of aggressive regime change, in which the U.S. will invade any country it deems to be part of the so-called axis of evil. But this time Tony Blair may actually listen to his own countrymen—and counsel Bush against more war."
In another report, the Daily Mirror said that a key point of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's visit to Washington, where he is due to meet incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, will be making the case against military action in Iran. "He has taken with him a 200-page dossier, called Iran's Nuclear Programme, spelling out the dangers of invading the hardline Islamic state," the article said.
Not surprisingly, the Iranian government lost no time in responding to the harsh words coming from Washington. The English-language Tehran Times carried statements from a foreign ministry spokesman who slammed comments by Cheney, Bush, and others as "psychological warfare." Cheney's mention of the possibility that Israel might decide to take matters into its own hands prompted the ministry to say, "[T]his confirms the Islamic Republic's view that Tel Aviv and the Zionist lobby in the U.S. determine the policies of Washington."
A commentator writing in the Israeli Ha'aretz had an interesting spin on Cheney's comments. Cheney's comment "was not a warning to Israel but a means of deterrence against Iran." The writer noted that in 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, then-Defense Secretary Cheney had used a similar tactic; speaking on CNN, he issued a televised warning to Iraq: Israel may respond harshly if you attack it.
It is important for the Americans not to give the impression that they are eager to precede diplomatic discussions with a military strike, but also to remind the Iranians that their bluff in the nuclear poker game is liable to fall apart in the face of … the Israeli joker.
In the eyes of some international analysts, the Iranian question is just one more bit of evidence that the United States has overstepped its ability. A column in the Times of London took issue with the president's bravado in his inauguration speech, noting that "Mr. Bush said 'freedom' 27 times in his speech. John F. Kennedy could be more sparing with the word because the idea behind it shone so brightly for America then, and for the world." Today, the column continued, American troops are overextended, and even if Bush wants to change regimes in Tehran and elsewhere, he'll have to face the fact that the country can only take on so many challenges at the same time. "His country is overstretched, losing economic momentum, losing world leadership, and losing the philosophical plot," the critique concluded. "America is running into the sand."