||Robert Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist.
Iran: Rhetoric and reality
WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- "We are not going to war against Iran," a senior Bush administration official told me this week.
This declarative statement came from an official who is not known for rash declarations and is inclined to guard his comments. It followed heavy static in Washington about U.S. intentions toward Iran set off by President Bush's second inaugural address.
If Iranian intelligence were monitoring American "chatter" the way the U.S. listens to its adversaries, Tehran might well think something was up.
A famous investigative reporter claims commandos are working behind the lines in Iran. The president's address seems to proclaim a global crusade for democracy, with Iran a probable target. The vice president goes on an offbeat radio talk show and speculates about Israel attacking Iran.
Yet, as the senior official confirmed, U.S. military action against the Iranians is not a realistic option.
Pentagon and State Department sources say a single blow could not eliminate Iran's nuclear capability, and an attempted change of regime in Tehran would entail a military effort the U.S. cannot undertake.
The problem of Iran deepens for the world's only superpower when rhetoric outstrips reality.
After Bush's 2002 State of the Union linked Iran with Iraq in the "axis of evil," Secretary of State Colin Powell behind the scenes warned how difficult it would be to attack Iran.
Powell told of Pentagon planning during the early 1990s when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Iran, with four times the land area and three times the population of Iraq, posed a massive challenge to a U.S.-led army.
Moreover, public support for the Iranian theocracy appears much greater than the popular backing for Saddam Hussein's secular dictatorship. Indeed, U.S. intelligence shows opposition to the rule of the mullahs has declined from a high level just six months ago.
Change of regime from within seems most unlikely. The sense of being threatened by the West may have strengthened theocratic rule.
That threat was heightened by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh's article in The New Yorker indicating U.S. Special Forces operatives are behind the lines in Iran, preparing for possible air strikes against nuclear facilities.
Sources have told me highly secret units operate inside Afghanistan and perhaps elsewhere, but not in Iran. Any such information could be gathered more easily inside Iran by Kurdish rebels who often cooperate with U.S. intelligence.
That set the stage for Vice President Dick Cheney's unexpected appearance Inauguration Day on the nationally syndicated "Imus in the Morning" radio talk show, known for ribald and outrageous material and often engaged in Bush-bashing and Cheney-bashing.
Don Imus asked Cheney to comment on the Hersh article's suggestion "that you all are up to something in Iran."
The vice president did not specifically address Hersh's contentions but asserted that "Iran is right at the top of the list" among the world's "potential trouble spots."
"Why don't we make Israel do it?" asked Imus. Instead of laughing that off, Cheney replied that "one of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked."
He said "the Israelis might well decide to act first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards."
Had Cheney used a more respectable venue for speculation, it would have received more attention.
Checking with sources at State and Defense, I was surprised that many were not aware of exactly what the vice president said. They told me there was no intelligence to predict an Israeli strike.
One official who is on top of the details said Iranian nuclear development is so dispersed around the country that the threat could not possibly be eliminated by a single bombing stroke as Israel did on June 7, 1981, when its bombers took out Iraq's only nuclear reactor.
Apparently, Cheney next thought better of his Israeli prediction and said of the Iranian problem that it would be best "if we could deal with it diplomatically."
That is precisely what Powell preached the last four years and what is dictated by military realities. The vision of spreading democracy gives way to the less dramatic goal of negotiating with Iran over nuclear arms.