On Thursday, the News International, the second-largest English-language paper in Pakistan, said that the head of US Naval Forces Central Command, Vice Admiral Patrick M. Walsh, told a small group of journalists at Fifth Fleet HQ in Bahrain that he feared a "miscalculation" by Iran could be "a mistake that then boils over into war."[1]  --*nbsp; Walsh accused Iran of becoming "much more strident, more vocal, and in your face" in the past eighteen months.  --  But an interview with an unnamed "senior Iranian government official," Christiane Amanpour of CNN gave a very different impression on Wednesday.  --  The official, who claimed to know the thinking of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, said urgently that "the United States and Iran need to engage each other."[2]   --  He said he believed that "[p]eace based on mutual respect, mutual benefit, and mutual security" is possible, but that Iran was also prepared for the worst:  "If we give the impression that we welcome a battle, this is not because it is our first option.  It's our final option."  --  The official said he feared an American "miscalculation."  --  In another development, the new chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA 12th), speaking at a press conference in Moscow, said the U.S. "has no intention whatsoever to engage in a military confrontation with Iran."[3] ...



News International (Pakistan)
February 22, 2007


MANAMA (Bahrain) -- The outgoing commander of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet has expressed concern that a “miscalculation” by Iran in its nuclear standoff with the West could spark an armed conflict in the Gulf region.

Vice Admiral Patrick M. Walsh, who also heads the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, told a small group of journalists at Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain that Iran was more likely to threaten oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz than mine the strategic passageway in the event of a showdown.

“What concerns me is miscalculation. That’s certainly what we are trying to avoid . . . a mistake that then boils over into a war,” Walsh said late on Monday.

Walsh, whose forces’ main mission is to secure free navigation in the Gulf and in a zone stretching from the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean to Pakistan in the east, was referring specifically to the northern part of the Gulf, where two Iraqi oil platforms are located and “the incursions from Iran have continued to grow over time.”

He made his remarks as a second nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier arrived in regional waters in an apparent warning to Teheran, which Washington accuses of seeking nuclear weapons and fueling the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.

The USS John C. Stennis and its accompanying strike group joined the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Sea of Oman, the first time the U.S. has had two aircraft carrier groups in the region since its 2003 invasion of Iraq, compounding speculation about a possible U.S. strike against the Islamic republic.

“We would expect the duration of the time here for the Stennis to be several months,” but its arrival is “not necessarily a precursor to offensive actions,” said Walsh, stressing it will initially support operations in Afghanistan.

“There is a national and international commitment to try and work through this crisis (over Iran’s nuclear program) through diplomatic channels,” namely the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Walsh said.

The countries of the region want a solution through such mechanisms “and we are very supportive of that.”

But Walsh, who has been commanding the Fifth Fleet since October 2005 and will leave Bahrain for Washington later this month to become the U.S. Navy’s number two, did not hide his concern about Iran’s belligerent posture.

“They (Iranian leaders) threaten to use oil as a weapon, they threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz, and so, it’s the combination of the rhetoric, the tone and the aggressive exercises here in very constrained waters that gives us concerns,” he said.

“In the past year and a half it (Iran) has become much more strident, more vocal, and in your face,” Walsh, 52, said. He recalled that during war games dubbed Great Prophet 2 in November in which Iran fired ballistic missiles in the Gulf, the Iranians “put their mines on their small boats and then displayed that . . . for all to see.”

The exercises “focused on the Strait of Hormuz,” through which at least 20 per cent of the world’s energy passes. “The only conclusion that we can draw from that is that it is meant to intimidate and provoke those who are in the region,” Walsh said.

The U.S. commander said that while Iran would not be able to close the Strait of Hormuz by using mines, it could “terrorize” the passageway, which would have a “dramatic impact” on world oil markets.

“To block all six miles (used by ships) would be a very difficult mission,” Walsh said.

“They would have to sit there and plant minefields for an extended period of time, and many would be able to see that,” he said.

“I think a more realistic characterisation is that Iran would terrorize the Strait . . . That would have a dramatic impact on markets around the world.”

Walsh said that the United States and its allies had deployed more minesweepers in response to Iranian threats against the Strait.

“There are more mine-clearing capabilities here in the region than there were a year ago . . . So when Iran talks about the ability to close the Strait of Hormuz by using mines, we come out with mine-clearing capabilities,” he said.


By Christiane Amanpour

February 21, 2007


--Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour recently traveled in Iran, and here she recaps a conversation with a top government official.

TEHRAN, Iran -- As I sat down recently with a senior Iranian government official, he urgently waved a column by Thomas Friedman of the *New York Times* in my face, one about how the United States and Iran need to engage each other.

"Natural allies," this official said.

It was a surprising choice of words considering the barbs Washington and Tehran have been trading of late.

"We are not after conflict. We are not after crisis. We are not after war," said this official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But we don't know whether the same is true in the U.S. or not. If the same is true on the U.S. side, the first step must be to end this vicious cycle that can lead to dangerous action -- war."

He confided that what he was telling me was not shared by all in the Iranian government, but it was endorsed so high up in the religious leadership that he felt confident spelling out the rationale.

"This view is not off the streets. It's not the reformist view and it's not even the view of the whole government," he replied.

But he insisted he was describing the thinking at the highest levels of the religious leadership -- the center of decision-making power in Iran.

I asked whether he meant Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself.

"Yes," he said.

The rhetoric between the United States and Iran has intensified of late, with Washington most recently blaming Tehran for funneling weapons into Iraq. Tehran vehemently denies this. Washington has also accused Iran of building up its nuclear program, with the ultimate goal of making a nuclear bomb -- something Tehran has long denied. Iran insists its nuclear program is for civilian nuclear power.

Indeed, this senior government official told me the first step between Iran and the United States must be for each side to accept that the other is secure, and to say so.

"We do not want to have to prove that we are strong. Our nuclear program is not to show the U.S. we are strong. It is because of our previous centuries of threats and invasions," he said.

Aha, I intervened, "so you do want the bomb?"

The official replied: "No, our nuclear program is not about the bomb, it's about power. We want to say -- that without the U.K., U.S., France, Russia, Germany -- we have done this ourselves [set up a peaceful nuclear program]. That is our strength."

He said the need to show power was "just common sense after 300 recent years looking over our shoulder," running through the list of those who have sent armies into Iran -- from Alexander the Great to the Mongols to the Ottomans to Russia to Saddam Hussein.

Then he paused. "The one country that never invaded us was America."


He said the time is right for the United States and Iran to sit down and talk directly -- to say "we recognize each other." He said neither side has done this so far "because of the mentality on each side."

"Each of us is afraid of looking weak if we take the first step," he said. "We have this fear in common with America. Before contemplating recognition, each side feels it necessary to convince the other side that 'I am not weak.'"

When the official waved the column by Friedman in my face at the start of the conversation, his point was this:

That despite disagreement over Iran's nuclear program, despite accusations that Iran is supporting anti-American killers in Iraq, despite even the 1979 hostage crisis, Iran and America are "natural allies" and the time has come to restore relations.

"We are natural allies. Why?" he said. "Because now the major threat for both Iran and the U.S.A. is al-Qaeda."

He said al Qaeda had attacked the "symbol of our faith" when it struck the Golden Dome mosque -- the Al-Askariya Mosque -- in the Iraqi city of Samarra last February, setting off much of the sectarian violence that has plagued the war-torn nation over the last year. Similarly, he said, al Qaeda struck the "symbols of American power" on 9/11.

"Why is the U.S. forcing us to enter a struggle with them that is only in al Qaeda's interest?" he said.

I pressed him about Iran's sudden interest in extending an olive branch. "Why now? What's motivating you?" I asked.

"Peace for the Iranian people," he said. "But not only peace, peace with security. Peace based on mutual respect, mutual benefit, and mutual security."

Mindful of the heated rhetoric flying between Tehran and Washington -- between both presidents no less -- this official said: "If we give the impression that we welcome a battle, this is not because it is our first option. It's our final option."

The official then spoke of some other issues of concern to the United States, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the war it provoked with Israel last summer when it captured and killed Israeli soldiers.

"Hassan Nasrallah miscalculated Israel's response to the kidnappings," he said of the Hezbollah leader. When I pressed him, he admitted Hezbollah also miscalculated Israel's need to project deterrence and identity.

I asked him why Iran helped Hezbollah in the war. "We helped Hezbollah in order that they not be wiped out," he said. "We helped the enemy of our enemy [Israel]."

I told him many Israelis believe the war's end was inconclusive and fear they face another challenge from Hezbollah this summer. The official replied: "We do not believe Hezbollah will do that again."

And then he turned back to his main point, about America. "Americans must not make the same miscalculation about us."

Like almost every Iranian I met, he fulminated against the infamous "Axis of Evil" reference made by President Bush during the 2002 State of the Union address. Iranians -- from the everyday man and woman on the street to the highest government official -- simply scratch their heads at that, especially since Iran had just worked in partnership with the United States bringing down the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and bringing that country a new democratic government.

And on that note, another senior Iranian official working closely on the Afghanistan issue told me that, after a recent trip there, he was alarmed to conclude that as much as 50 percent of Afghanistan is now once again under control of a resurgent Taliban, al Qaeda, and forces of another radical Islamic leader Gulbeddin Hekmatyar. This Iranian official told me the United States must again engage to prevent disaster from overshadowing the success that was made in Afghanistan after 9/11. He said Iran is ready to do its part.


My 90-minute conversation with the senior Iranian government official ended with him describing a way forward between the United States and Iran.

"Everything with Iranian engagement. Everything with U.S. engagement," he said.

In other words, instead of the United States saying, ''Iran out of the Persian Gulf, Iran out of Lebanon, Iran out of Iraq,'' the United States should welcome Iran's presence and work with Iran to help keep the region stable, he said.

The question now is which country will take the first step and show they're not being weak by putting diplomacy back on track.

History awaits the answer.



February 21, 2007


MOSCOW -- The United States has "no intention whatsoever" of engaging in military conflict with Iran, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' foreign relations committee, Tom Lantos, said here on Wednesday.

"It is the policy of the United States to deal with the problems that the regime in Tehran poses for all of us in a peaceful and diplomatic fashion," said Lantos, a Democratic congressman who became the committee's chairman last month.

"The United States has no intention whatsoever to engage in a military confrontation with Iran. We have the highest regard for the Iranian people. We obviously have some reservations with respect to some of the utterly irresponsible and reckless statements by some of the leaders of Iran," he told a news conference in Moscow.

Lantos added that draft legislation he had introduced in Congress last week on creating an internationally supervised nuclear fuel bank would allow countries such as Iran to develop nuclear energy in a risk-free fashion.

"It is important that mature and dependable nuclear powers like Russia and the United States make available to all countries both nuclear fuel and reprocessing of used nuclear materials in a secure and internationally supervised manner, obviating the need for countries to develop their own nuclear cycle," said Lantos.

The comments came at the close of a visit to Moscow in which Lantos adopted a conciliatory approach to the Russian authorities, in sharp contrast to his previous criticism of Moscow on human rights and other issues.