WASHINGTON—President Bush says he isn't looking for a fight, but the question won't go away: Is the United States headed for war with Iran's Islamic rulers?
Increasing tensions with Iran over its nuclear program and actions in Iraq have fueled speculation that Bush may be paving the way for military action. With U.S. forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one expects a ground invasion, but analysts at both ends of the political spectrum put little stock in Bush's insistence that he's focused only on diplomacy.
"I still believe, at the end of the day, that he will bomb the Iranian (nuclear) facilities," said Joshua Muravchik, a neoconservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank with close ties to the Bush administration. Muravchik, who favors military action, sees Bush's current focus on diplomacy as a prelude to attack.
"When he does it—if he does it—it will be wildly unpopular. He certainly at least wants to be able to say convincingly, `I tried everything else,'" Muravchik said.
Bush bristles at suggestions that he wants a confrontation. He and his advisers describe U.S. policy as a carrot-and-stick approach that uses the threat of military action to create diplomatic leverage. The goal is to encourage internal dissent in Iran and force the government to take a more moderate approach.
"Our policies are all aimed at convincing the Iranian people there's a better way forward, and I hope their government hears that message," Bush said at a Feb. 14 news conference. "We'll continue to try to solve the issue peacefully."
The next day, a frustrated Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared, "For the umpteenth time, we are not looking for an excuse to go to war with Iran."
The strategy could backfire, however, if U.S. pressure prompts Iranians to coalesce behind their leaders instead of encouraging dissent. Moreover, Iran has signaled that it has tools of its own, such as planning war games in the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint for half the world's oil; improving relations with Russia and China; and stepping up support for militant Shiite Muslims in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Skeptics note that Bush also stressed diplomacy in the run-up to the Iraq war, declaring his peaceful intentions even as he prepared for the 2003 invasion.
"I don't have any war plans on my desk," he told reporters during a visit to France on May 26, 2002. While that may have been technically correct, Bush already had received a series of briefings on invasion plans, including one about two weeks before his European trip.
In recent months, the Bush administration has ratcheted up pressure against Iran. It has:
_Dispatched a second aircraft carrier strike group to patrol the Persian Gulf and sent Patriot anti-missile missiles to Arab allies bordering the Gulf.
_Expanded operations against alleged Iranian networks operating in Iraq, conducting two raids, one involving U.S. soldiers snatching Iranians said to be members of the al Quds paramilitary force.
_Accused Iran of supplying roadside bombs to Iraqi insurgents and vowed to stop the shipments.
_Moved to bolster the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora with money and military supplies in a proxy struggle with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist group.
_Launched an aggressive financial campaign against Iran to curb its access to the international financial system, freezing bank funds and barring U.S. transactions with various entities. Last week the Treasury Department added Hezbollah's construction arm, Jihad al Bina, to a roster of blacklisted banks.
A senior U.S. official said in an interview that Bush is seeking to increase pressure on Iran to change its behavior, but isn't trying to spark a military confrontation.
European and Arab diplomats say they've sought and received assurances that the United States isn't planning war against Iran.
"They have told us there are no plans to attack Iran," said Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's ambassador in Washington. Fahmy said that while Iran must address concerns about its nuclear program, the Middle East needs less conflict, not more.
U.S. officials from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on down say the pressure on Iran is producing results. They cite a growing debate in Iran over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's performance, the country's economic doldrums and the poor showing of Ahmadinejad's supporters in December's local elections.
Still, Ahmadinejad has remained defiant on the nuclear issue, ignoring a Feb. 21 U.N. deadline to halt uranium enrichment. He says Iran is interested only in nuclear power generation. U.S. officials believe Iran is using its civilian nuclear industry as cover for a weapons program.
"The free world is sending the regime in Tehran a clear message: We're not going to allow Iran to have nuclear weapons,"' Bush told an American Legion convention last February.
So what happens if threats and diplomacy fail? It's a question that administration officials don't want to answer. Iran isn't believed to be on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons, but some analysts—and Israelis—worry that it could soon reach a point where its program will be hard to stop without military strikes.
"We have got time," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, the No. 3 State Department official, said at a recent forum. "There is no one arguing, that I know of, inside the administration or outside, to the effect that we have to exhaust diplomacy in the next few months."
But Bush has two more years in the White House, and he may not want to leave the Iranian problem to the next president.
"We may be talking about decisions the president has not yet made, but may yet make before his two years are up," said Paul Pillar, a retired senior CIA analyst who's now a Georgetown University professor.
"In military terms, in political terms, the stage is being set," said retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, a frequent administration critic. "The path is toward the military option, although a decision, I don't think, has been made."
Some analysts fear that heightened tensions could lead to military action whether Bush wants it or not. In 1988, during a tense period of the Iran-Iraq War, the guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 people aboard.
"In the current climate, there's a substantial risk of things escalating out of control," Pillar said.