WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Deadly weapons smuggled into Iraq with the direct knowledge of senior Iranian leaders are killing and maiming American troops, but the United States won't confront Iran directly on the issue, according to top U.S. policymakers.
Instead, the United States will continue working with an international coalition to press Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program, hoping that a change in Tehran's "calculus of decision-making" will cause it to give up its nuclear ambitions and its support for terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere, a senior Defense Department official said yesterday.
Despite a recent warning by Vice President Dick Cheney that Iran faces "serious consequences" for its behavior, the officials' statements appeared to rule out any direct action against Iran, such as hot pursuit of Iranian terrorist advisers or airstrikes against known sites in western Iran used to make sophisticated bombs used against U.S. troops in Iraq.
Pentagon officials "are frankly very angry about what they see as a persistent pattern of lethal assistance that's killing American kids. But from a strategic point of view ... the No. 1 question is the nuclear" issue, said the senior Defense Department official, who briefed a small group of reporters on condition that he not be identified.
Inside Iraq, however, U.S. military efforts to disrupt Iranian operations will continue, said David Satterfield, the State Department's top Iraq policy adviser. These operations are being undertaken "at the decision and command of the most senior levels of the Iranian government," he said.
But Satterfield, who spoke with reporters Tuesday, also described a broader U.S. response to Iran's strategy of seeking to establish what he described as "escalation dominance" in the Middle East. The U.S. approach includes arms sales to Persian Gulf allies, economic support for Israel and Egypt, and leading the international drive to end Iran's nuclear program.
In congressional testimony yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Iran "the single greatest challenge for American security interests in the Middle East and possibly around the world." She said the United States is "committed to the diplomatic track."
Nevertheless, the only direct contacts between American and Iranian officials have been the three sets of talks held this year between Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, and senior Iranian officials.
The talks have produced no change in Iranian behavior, Satterfield said, and no further talks are scheduled.
Iranian military operations in Iraq are carried out by the al-Quds Brigade of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the sprawling military organization which in effect runs a virtual parallel government in Iran, as U.S. officials describe it. Al-Quds smuggles into Iraq weapons that range from the explosively formed projectile (EFP) bombs that can penetrate most armor to shoulder-fired, heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles, according to U.S. officials.
U.S. troops have disrupted a number of Iranian-backed terrorist cells, destroying weapons and detaining some Iranians, according to the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. He charged earlier this month that Iran is "responsible for providing the weapons, the training, the funding and in some cases the direction for operations that have indeed killed U.S. soldiers."
Iran is especially active in southern Iraq, where British troops have pulled back and rival Shiite factions are battling for power, U.S. officials said.
"They'll supply arms and ammo to everybody and see who comes out on top," the Pentagon official said. "That's a matter of some concern."
Despite such actions, U.S. forces have refrained from any operations to cross the border into Iran.
"We have an obligation to do everything we can to protect American service people," the Pentagon official said. But he added, referring to the U.S. goal of thwarting Iran's nuclear program, "This is not the only circumstance where you have to balance obligations."
The effort to stop Iran's nuclear program has dragged on for years, with three U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran halt its efforts to build a uranium enrichment capability, a key step toward building a nuclear weapons capability.
In December, the Security Council imposed modest economic sanctions on Iran and is awaiting a new report on Iran's nuclear activities from the International Atomic Energy Agency before considering further steps.