WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- As President Bush and his aides calibrate an escalating confrontation with Iran, they are discovering that both their words and their strategy are haunted by the echoes of four years ago - when their warnings of terrorist activity and nuclear ambitions were clearly a prelude to war.
This time, they insist, it is different.
"We're not looking for a fight with Iran," R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for policy and the chief negotiator on Iranian issues, said in an interview Friday evening, just a few hours after Bush had repeated his warnings to Iran to halt "killing our soldiers" and to stop its drive for nuclear fuel.
Burns, noting the president's words, insisted that Washington was still committed to "a diplomatic path" - even as it executes a far more aggressive strategy, seizing Iranians in Iraq, and attempting to starve Iran of the money it needs to revitalize a precious asset, its oil industry.
Burns argues that these are defensive steps that are not intended to provoke Iran, though there has been a vigorous behind-the-scenes debate in the administration about the risks that the new confrontations could escalate, particularly if Iran strikes back.
To many in Washington, especially Bush's Democratic critics, the new approach to Iran has all the hallmarks of an administration once again spoiling for a fight.
Some see an attempt to create a political diversion, focusing the country's attention away from a war gone bad in Iraq, and toward a country that has deftly exploited America's troubles to expand its influence. Others suspect an effort to shift the blame for the spiraling chaos in Iraq, as a steady flow of officials, from the CIA director to the new secretary of defense, point to intelligence that Iranians are smuggling into Iraq sophisticated explosive devices, mortars and detailed plans to wipe out Sunni Arab neighborhoods.
They have revealed no evidence. This week in Baghdad, U.S. military officials are expected to make their most comprehensive case - based on materials seized in recent raids - that Iran's elite Quds force is behind many of the most lethal attacks.
But as they present their evidence, some Bush administration officials concede that they are confronting the bitter legacy of their pre-war distortions of the intelligence in Iraq. When speaking under the condition that their names not be used, they say that the administration's credibility has been deeply damaged, preventing Bush, for example, from discussing in public the evidence to back up his claim that Iran's uranium enrichment program is intended for bomb production, not generating electricity.
"It's never stated explicitly, but clearly we can't make the case about Iran's intentions," said a senior strategist for the Bush administration who joined it long after evidence surfaced that Iraq had none of the illicit weapons that the administration gave as a reason to go to war.
Now, several years later, the administration is paying the price in dealing with a country whose ability to project power, and to build a sophisticated nuclear program, is far greater than Saddam Hussein's was in 2003.
The administration does not have definitive evidence that Iran is moving toward producing a nuclear bomb, but this week it will unveil what officials say is evidence of Iran's meddling in Iraq.
In interviews over the past several weeks, officials from the Pentagon to the State Department to the White House insist that Bush's goal in Iran is not to depose a government, Iraq-style, but rather to throw a series of brushback pitches.
Officials familiar with the intelligence prepared for Bush say that American assessments conclude that Iran sees itself at the head of an alliance to drive the United States out of Iraq, and ultimately out of the Middle East. Other briefings have included assessments that Russia and China will never be persuaded to join meaningful economic sanctions against a country they do business with - and so if Bush wants to apply military and economic pressure, he must do so outside the United Nations.
The result was a strategy that Bush approved in the fall to push back on all fronts, and to force Iran to recalculate what administration officials call its cost-benefit analysis for challenging the United States. The effort to stop European and Japanese banks from lending money to Iran's oil sector is part of the equation. So is pushing down the price of a barrel of oil, and administration officials grow silent when asked whether Cheney or others have discussed with Saudi Arabia the benefits of pumping enough oil to push the price down, to deprive Iran of revenues.
But it is the military component of the strategy that carries the biggest risks. Two aircraft carriers and their accompanying battle groups were sent into the Persian Gulf, a senior military official said, "to remind the Iranians that we can focus on them, too." U.S. military forces in Iraq were authorized to move against Iranian operatives, though it is unclear what kind of evidence is needed, if any, that they are conspiring against U.S. forces before military action is authorized.
U.S. officials describe these measures as purely defensive. "We are definitely looking to protect our interests in the gulf, in Iraq itself, and to protect the lives of our soldiers," said Burns, who insisted that there was no effort to stop Iran from ordinary exchanges with Iraqi neighbors.
Yet administration officials clearly worry that the Iranians may not back down and that a confrontation could escalate - especially if a midlevel U.S. commander or a member of Iran's military or paramilitary forces in Iraq miscalculated. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have warned against that risk, officials say.
Administration officials say that while all of Bush's advisers have signed on to the new strategy of more forceful confrontation with Tehran, there is considerable internal debate about how far to push it. Some Iran experts inside the State Department have warned that direct encounters between Americans and Iranians inside Iraq could strengthen the hand of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Iranian president has been under attack at home for failing to produce jobs and for the rising cost of his nuclear defiance, and the department's Iran hands have warned that he would benefit greatly if he could change the subject by confronting Bush directly in an argument over Iran's rightful role.