With George W Bush in the twilight of his presidency and the election campaign to replace him dominating the news in the United States, one thorny issue prevents the public from ignoring the current occupant of the White House altogether: Iran. Among pundits, former government officials and think-tank analysts, the debate about what to do with Iran and its nuclear programme has been churning at a slow boil since the UN's atomic watchdog accused Tehran early last month of continuing to withhold information needed to establish whether it is trying to build nuclear weapons. Last week, John Bolton, the hawkish former US ambassador to the United Nations, turned up the temperature.
He told a British newspaper that Israel could attack Iran after the US presidential election in November but before Mr Bush's successor is sworn in next January. Purporting to be knowledgeable about the corridors of power in the Arab Middle East, Mr Bolton said that Arabs would privately be "pleased" by Israeli strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. Now the pot of media speculation threatens to boil over, with the publication on Sunday of a story by Seymour M Hersh, a US investigative journalist, alleging that the Bush administration has undertaken a covert operation costing US$400 million (Dh1.5billion) against Iran involving the support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baloch groups and other dissident organisations and cross-border operations from southern Iraq by US Special Operations Forces.
Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, denied the latter allegation. "I can tell you flatly that US forces are not operating across the Iraqi border into Iran, in the south or anywhere else," he said on CNN on Sunday. Not to be outdone, the US television network ABC, quoting an unnamed defence department official, reported yesterday that Israel is increasingly likely to attack Iranian nuclear facilities this year. Tom Casey, a US state department spokesman, however, vehemently denied the ABC report later in the day.
Given Washington's well-known antagonism towards Tehran as a supposed spoke in the "axis of evil", a purported secret operation aimed at destabilising, if not toppling, the Iranian government would hardly be surprising. Still, the current hubbub is not merely a typical example of Washington journalism, in which trial balloons, spinning, leaking and counter-leaking are a veritable art form. What has sent other news organisations feverishly scrambling to confirm or deny Hersh's story in The New Yorker magazine is his assertion - citing a so-called "finding" signed by Mr Bush last year - that one goal of the operation is to collect "intelligence on Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program".
To many journalists, observers and critics of the war in Iraq, including Mr Hersh, that relatively innocuous phrase sounds suspiciously like Washington is preparing the ground for war with Iran. And keen to avoid an embarrassing repetition of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in which most news US news organisations seemed all too credulous about the administration's allegations concerning the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, journalists are leaving no stone unturned. The danger that they simply become part of a deliberate US strategy to turn up the heat on Iran is obvious.
There are signs that Iran, for its part, wants to turn down the temperature after Gen Mohammad Ali Jafari, Iran's top Revolutionary Guards Commander, warned on Saturday that Iran would respond to any attack by hitting Israel with missiles and threatened to control the oil shipping passage through the Straits of Hormuz. Yesterday, Iran's foreign ministry dismissed the ABC report as "American propaganda", while Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, warned officials of his own government against what he called "illogical and provocative sloganeering", presumably because he believes they threaten to inflame a tense situation and deepen uneasiness in Iran.
Amid all the media commotion of course is the simple fact that given Bush administration's animosity towards Iran, it would be indeed surprising if the Pentagon did not have contingency plans for an attack on Iran. Similarly, given Israel's fear that it could be a target of an Iranian bomb, it would be astonishing if its air force did not carry out dry-runs for an assault on Iranian nuclear weapons plants, as it is believed to have done last month.
This is not to say that the real intentions of United States and Israel - or for that matter, Iran's ? are known. The likelihood is that Mr Bush does not know what he is going to do about Iran. Instead, he will wait until after his successor is elected in November to decide America's next step. Similarly, it is probable that while Iran will continue to enrich uranium, its rulers have not yet decided whether to build a nuclear weapon, aware of the perilous course upon which that would place the country.
Meanwhile, the uncertainty - and anxiety - will continue, fuelled by a media eager to avoid its recent mistakes. The danger is that it could unwittingly contribute to an already tense atmosphere, make the dangers of brinkmanship and sabre-rattling more rather than less likely. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org