WASHINGTON — As the United States and Iran prepare to hold talks on stabilizing Iraq, tensions between Tehran and Washington are ratcheting up again.
The U.S. Navy on Wednesday began its largest war games off the Iranian coast since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, with two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers leading a flotilla of nine ships, dozens of combat aircraft and more than 2,100 Marines.
As the air and sea exercises commenced, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency reported that Iran is expanding its nuclear program — which U.S. officials charge is aimed at developing nuclear weapons — in defiance of U.N. Security Council demands that it suspend uranium enrichment.
Iran also has stepped up arms shipments to insurgents battling American troops and the U.S.-backed governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. For the first time, Iran has begun supplying the Taliban in Afghanistan with explosively formed projectile bombs, which have been used to destroy U.S. armored vehicles in Iraq, the officials said.
These developments are part of a wider pattern of tit-for-tat actions and reactions that some members of Congress, U.S. officials and Arab governments worry could escalate into an armed confrontation.
Another example of the back-and-forth: As U.S. forces in Iraq continue to hold five Iranians it seized from a diplomatic facility in Irbil in the Kurdish zone, Iran has detained three Iranian-Americans, among them Haleh Esfandiari, a leading Middle East expert at the at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
Next Monday, meanwhile, U.S. and Iranian diplomats are scheduled to meet in Baghdad for talks on reducing the violence in Iraq, which the Bush administration charges is fueled partly by Iranian arms supplies, funding and other support for Shiite Muslim militias and Sunni Muslim insurgents.
Middle East experts offer a variety of explanations for Iran's behavior.
"The Iranians are trying to send a message that that if we push them too hard, they can push back whenever and wherever they choose to," said a U.S. intelligence official, who couldn't be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject.
But the Iranian leadership appears to be divided on how far to go in its response.
"Anything that occurs in the way of U.S.-Iranian engagement is going to be subject to much tussling among the different elements in the government in Tehran," said Paul Pillar, formerly the top U.S. intelligence analyst on the Middle East. "The incentive for those who would rather not see engagement and whose political position depends on the image of U.S.-Iranian hostility would be to torpedo successful talks."
A hard-line faction led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which includes senior commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, is directing the Iranian policy, U.S. officials say.
The Ahmadinejad faction also may be trying to head off any attempt by more pragmatic Iranian leaders to engage the United States diplomatically on Iraq, the nuclear dispute and other issues.
Iran's longer-term goal may be to position itself to fill the power vacuum in the region that it anticipates will result from the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by whoever is elected to succeed President Bush in November 2008, U.S. and European officials said.
"There are obviously elements in the Iranian regime who believe that we don't have the national will to confront the Iranians as they make mischief and try to expand their power and influence," said a State Department official.
The United States, however, is also proceeding along two tracks, one diplomatic and the other more confrontational.
The U.S. Navy announced that battle groups led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers USS John C. Stennis and USS Nimitz entered the Persian Gulf on Wednesday to support U.S. forces in Iraq and conduct war games.
A strike group led by the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault vessel carrying 2,100 Marines, joined the aircraft carrier battle groups.
The Navy said that the exercise in the waterway through which two-fifths of the world's petroleum supplies are shipped "is not connected to events in the region" and "not directed against any nation."
But President Bush and his top lieutenants have said that the U.S. military buildup is aimed at reassuring friendly Sunni Arab governments nervous about overwhelmingly Shiite Iran's efforts to play a more assertive role in the world's main oil-producing region.