By David R. Sands
The Washington Times – They share a border, a strategic location, a deep hostility for the United States, a critical role in world oil markets and an ill-concealed ambition to obtain nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration, though, has taken vastly different approaches in its dealings with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the current crisis over the Islamic republic of Iran.
"Iran is different from Iraq. There’s more diplomacy, in my judgment, to be done," President Bush told reporters last year.
The U.S. government is relying on multilateral diplomacy, the United Nations and the threat of sanctions in its bid to derail Iran’s nuclear program.
Using more military force in the Middle East remains an option, administration officials insist, but there is no hint of the buildup of forces that preceded Saddam’s ouster in 2003.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week told reporters that the collapse of more than two years of U.S.-backed negotiations with Iran by France, Germany and Britain meant only that "we’re entering a new phase of diplomacy."
"But it is still diplomacy, and we believe that if the international community stays united, it has a chance to work," Miss Rice said.
Israel has come to view Iran as its No. 1 enemy, and its fears were heightened when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in October called for the Jewish state to be "wiped off the map."
Unlike in Saddam’s Iraq, it is often hard to tell who actually is in charge in Iran. But with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election, the hard-line Islamic clerics appear to have consolidated their power.
Although no one thinks Mr. Ahmadinejad is freelancing, ultimately it is Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not the president, who controls the military and decides on defense and foreign-policy issues.
The European powers want an emergency meeting of the U.N.’s nuclear-watchdog agency in Vienna, Austria, early next month that would forward the Iranian issue to the Security Council for possible sanctions.
Iran says it will not back down, and Friday officials in Tehran said they were shifting state funds out of bank accounts in Europe to frustrate any asset freeze.
Bush administration officials argue their diplomatic approach to Iran undermines the stereotype of Mr. Bush as a unilateralist "cowboy," a negative image popular in Europe in the run-up to the war in Iraq.
But some say Washington’s Iran policy reflects the unexpected difficulties of postwar Iraq, the strain on U.S. military forces and Tehran’s ability to inflict severe damage on American and Western interests in Iraq and elsewhere if cornered.
Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, said the "pre-emptive" military doctrine against terrorist threats approved by Mr. Bush in the September 2002 security-policy statement was tried and found badly wanting in Baghdad.
"Far from overawing other would-be opponents, the Iraq war has provided them with a template for how to fight the world’s most powerful military to a stalemate," Mr. Bacevich wrote recently.
Mohammed Mohadessin is a foreign-policy spokesman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exiled opposition group that the State Department lists as a terrorist organization.
"I think support for our efforts is definitely being hurt by what is happening in Iraq," he said in a telephone interview Friday from Paris.
The administration’s strategy actually has led to complaints from Democrats that Mr. Bush has been too soft on the Tehran threat.
"I don’t believe you face threats like Iran or North Korea by outsourcing it to others and standing on the sidelines," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, said in a speech Wednesday at Princeton University.
But private analysts say Iran is a harder case because it has far more ways to counter any military strike on its nuclear programs.
Iran has three times the population and four times the land mass of Iraq. Its known nuclear research and development sites are scattered and protected against attack.
U.S. forces face heavy demands in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran’s leaders enjoy extensive ties to Iraq’s majority Shi’ite community and easily could stir up trouble for U.S. forces across the border.
Iraq under Saddam faced broad international economic sanctions for more than a decade before the war.
Iran, by contrast, is the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter and has major commercial links with both Russia and China. Any curb on Iranian exports would have an instantaneous effect, said Leonid Grigoriev of Moscow’s Institute for Energy and Finance.
"If you deduct their 2 million barrels a day from the market, you have real shortages — at any price," he said. "I would be very careful about Iran."