Reducing Tensions Over Iran?

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Vahid Salemi / AP

Mousa Chegini, center, and Hamid Reza Asgari Shukuh, back left, who were among five people captured when U.S. forces stormed an Iranian government office in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January, are carried on the shoulders of relatives, after arriving at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport, Iran.

President George W. Bush has warned that "World War III" could be the consequence of Iran gaining the know-how to make nuclear weapons. Vice President Dick Cheney recently declared that Washington would "not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon," and that Iran would face "serious consequences" if it refuses to stop enriching uranium. But the U.S. military, at least in the short term, appears to be pushing in the other direction.

Rhetoric doesn't always match reality in the realm of foreign affairs, and in what may be a further sign that steps are being taken to dial down tensions with Iran, the U.S. military in Baghdad on Friday released nine Iranians in its custody — including two of the five nabbed in Irbil in January, who the U.S. had accused of being linked to Shi'ite militias fighting U.S. troops inside Iraq. There are indications that Tehran may also be acting to cool tensions with the U.S. in Iraq: U.S. officials say the number of deadly explosively-formed-penetrator roadside bombs arriving in Iraq from Iran has been halved between July and October. And while alarmists were quick to note the U.S. Navy's deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf off Iran's coast earlier this year, they have been largely mute as the two ships were replaced by a solo carrier in August.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has tempered talk of confrontation by stressing that diplomacy and economic sanctions should be the key weapons in the U.S. arsenal, at least for now. "We have said more than once that while all options are on the table, that any solution other than diplomatic and economic pressure would be a last resort," Gates said Thursday in Tokyo. "It is our policy to resolve this problem peacefully and through diplomatic and economic sanctions and pressure on the Iranians."

U.S. ground forces are stretched tight in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and while American air power could delay an Iranian push for atomic power, experts concede it probably couldn't thwart it. Admiral William Fallon, who as head of the U.S. Central Command would oversee any war against Iran, has spoken out against the idea of attacking Iran, as has his predecessor, John Abizaid, a now-retired Army general.

For readers of foreign-relations tea leaves, it's worth nothing that Bush — who tossed out his "Word War III" warning only three weeks ago — didn't mention military options when discussing Iran at a joint press conference with French president Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday. "The idea of Iran having a nuclear weapon is dangerous," he said. "Therefore, now is the time for us to work together to diplomatically solve this problem."

Nevertheless, that same day, more than 6,000 miles away, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seemed to ignore any such olive branches. He declared that his country now has 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges at Natanz churning out highly enriched uranium that he says will be used to generate electrical power. But Washington and its allies fear that Iran's enrichment capability will be used to create fissile material for nuclear bombs. So, the U.S. continues to hedge its bets. After all, while it released two of the five Iranians captured in Irbil, three remain in custody.