Listening to the questions asked of Gen. David Petraeus in the Senate Thursday, you might think the U.S. was headed for a new war in the Gulf. Senators from both sides of the aisle spent as much time asking him about Iran as they did about Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut grilled Petraeus on Iran's anti-U.S. activities in the region. Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii plaintively asked about the utility of negotiations with Iran. And Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia pressed Petraeus on what he meant by the need to "counter malign Iranian influence" and the "consequences for its illegitimate influence in the region."
The general, whose confirmation as head of U.S. Central Command was stake in the hearing, did his best to pacify the men and women who held his appointment in their hands, emphasizing his support for "the three rounds of negotiations that have taken place" between Iran, Iraq and the U.S. in Baghdad over security issues. But the Senators' questions how how persistent the concern is on Capitol Hill that President Bush could be secretly planning a military strike against Iran.
In theory, the idea of a war with Iran should be a non-starter in a nation whose war-weary public has no appetite for further military adventures in the Middle East, no matter how determined Iran may be to get a nuclear weapon or to arm and train anti-U.S. forces in Iraq. Republican candidates on Capitol Hill, already facing their worst electoral prospects in a generation, are equally disinclined to support military action against Iran. Even Bush's own cabinet officials, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have been repeatedly cool to the idea in public.
But those expressing caution and skepticism in Washington are not the only voices the commander in chief of U.S. armed forces is hearing. In Israel, from which President Bush recently returned, one doesn't have to go far to find deep, existential concern. "A military option is not a good option," for dealing with Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions, a senior Israeli official told TIME on the sidelines of one of Bush's meetings, "But there's only one thing worse than that, which is Iran going nuclear." Those outside the Israeli government express even greater urgency. "I'm worried that by November it's going to be too late," to stop Iran from gaining the ability to produce nuclear weapons, said Yossi Kuperwasser, the former senior intelligence officer for the Central Command of the Israeli Defense. On military action against nuclear sites in Iran, he said, "Just do it. For Christ's sake, do it and solve our problem."
Nor is it only the Israelis who are concerned. Egyptian and Saudi leaders also expressed their worries about Iran's nuclear ambitions when Bush met with them on the trip, several White House aides say. "People in the region really want to see it solved peacefully," says a senior White House official, "but they're also concerned for their own safety and they're also mindful of the calendar, and they know that this President has been very strong."
If diplomatic efforts continue to look unlikely to produce an outcome acceptable to the Administration, would President Bush consider military action? The odds have to be against it, given the domestic environment. But the tone among some of his allies abroad is very different. As he often does on such trips, Bush held one-on-one talks with key leaders on his recent trip, during which aides were asked to leave the room and particularly sensitive matters were discussed. After a similar one-on-one last January, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was asked at a press conference with Bush whether the American leader's "hands were tied" when it came to Iran. Olmert said his impression after talks with Bush was that the President is "exceptionally determined," and that "he has proven this throughout his term in office his preparedness to take exceptional measures in order to defend the principles in which he believes, and in his deep commitment to the security of the state of Israel."
Following Bush's visit this month, the Jerusalem Post reported that a senior U.S. advisor on the trip had told Israeli officials that Bush was prepared to attack Iran, but that Gates and Rice were blocking the way. It was a second-hand report that White House Press Secretary Dana Perino strongly denied. On the Hill Thursday, Petraeus listed Iran as key to the top two security concerns facing Central Command, and mentioned nuclear worries in particular. "The lack of transparency in efforts by countries such as Iran and Syria to develop their nuclear programs is a major concern," he said.
It's that kind of talk that has people in Washington worried. Aides to Democratic leaders on the Hill fear that Bush may be planning to bomb Iran between November and January, after the political cost goes down and when he may feel he is doing his successor a favor. Dan Senor, former military spokesman and foreign policy advisor to the Bush Administration, says he finds that scenario highly unlikely, because he believes it would provoke numerous resignations from the intelligence community and the armed services, both of which groups feel burned from the Iraq experience. Senor may be right, but there are enough signs echoing back from abroad, to keep observers at home and overseas guessing.