As U.S. Steps Up Pressure on Iran, Aftereffects Worry Allies

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007; Page A09

America's allies are increasingly concerned about the Bush administration's plans to unilaterally escalate pressure on Iran, fearing that an evolving strategy may also set in motion a process that could lead to military action if Iran does not back down, according to diplomats and officials of foreign countries.

Although they share deep concern about Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions, European and Arab governments are particularly alarmed about new U.S. moves, including plans to cite Iran's entire Revolutionary Guard Corps as a "specially designated global terrorist." The move would block the elite unit's assets and pressure foreign companies doing business with its vast commercial network.

Allies are less concerned about that step than they are about the new momentum behind it, and the potential for spillover in a region reeling with multiple conflicts. "If the region is strewn with crises, then there's potential for real disaster. There's a fear that they will all merge into a super-emergency bigger than any one country can deal with," a leading Arab envoy said.

Language from the State Department yesterday triggered further alarm. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters: "We are confronting Iranian behavior across a variety of different fronts on a number of different 'battlefields,' if you will. We are confronting Iran's behavior in arming and providing material support to those groups that are going after our troops. We confront them on the ground in Iraq. Our military is doing that. We are confronting Iran diplomatically in the international arena with respect to their nuclear program."

European envoys expressed alarm at the use of "battlefield" in describing policy on Iran.

It was a two-way street, however. Yahya Rahim Safavi, commander of the Revolutionary Guard, said yesterday that Iranian missiles can hit warships anywhere in the Persian Gulf. The United States has a carrier battle group in the Gulf.

At home, even lawmakers supportive of tougher sanctions on Iran pointedly urged the administration not to stray beyond diplomacy. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and sponsor of the pending Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, welcomed the move and said foreign banks will think twice about dealing with enterprises linked to the 125,000-strong Revolutionary Guard Corps.

But Lantos also said that the United States is "far from having exhausted all the peaceful options for putting Tehran's leadership on the right path." He added: "Any talk of military intervention is unwise and unsupported by Congress and the American people."

U.S. specialists on Iran also warned about the unintended consequences of designating a state's military force a terrorist group.

"While this step can deal a blow to efforts to utilize diplomacy with Iran to stabilize Iraq, the long-term effects can be even more decisive by further entrenching U.S.-Iran relations in a paradigm of enmity," said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.

George Percovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that unilaterally sanctioning the Revolutionary Guard's corporate interests makes sense if it avoids the prospect of not doing so in a new U.N. resolution. But he expressed concern about the political costs. "You have to show that there is a way out, and that the U.S. doesn't have an unending set of demands and isn't going to continue to press on for either military action or regime change, which many other countries think is the real U.S. objective," he said.

Geoffrey Kemp, who worked on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan administration, said that the United States should instead be pressuring Europe to adopt U.S. sanctions dating to 1995 to cut off investment in any Iranian businesses and industry. "That would have a far more significant impact on the debate inside Iran over its nuclear policy," he said.

Michael McFaul of Stanford University also urged more carrots. "If you want democratic regime change and to destabilize the regime, the best thing you could do is to make an offer about massive negotiations about everything -- human rights and state sponsorship in terrorism, as well as lifting [U.S.] sanctions and opening an embassy," he said. "Politically, this step doesn't help the administration undermine the regime -- it helps to consolidate the regime."