WASHINGTON - Republican and Democratic senators
warned Tuesday against a drift toward war with an emboldened Iran and suggested
the Bush administration was missing a chance to engage its longtime adversary in
potentially helpful talks over next-door Iraq.
"What I think many of us are concerned about is that we stumble into active
hostilities with Iran without having aggressively pursued diplomatic approaches,
without the American people understanding exactly what's taking place," Sen.
Barack Obama, D-Ill., told John Negroponte, who is in line to become the
nation's No. 2 diplomat as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's deputy.
Obama, a candidate for president in 2008, warned during the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee hearing that senators of both parties will demand "clarity
and transparency in terms of U.S. policy so that we don't repeat some of the
mistakes that have been made in the past," a reference to the faulty
intelligence underlying the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a possible presidential candidate, asked Negroponte
if he thinks the United States is edging toward a military confrontation with
Tehran. In response, Negroponte repeated President Bush's oft-stated preference
for diplomacy, although he later added, "We don't rule out other possibilities."
Separately, the Navy admiral poised to lead American forces in the Middle
East said Iran wants to limit America's influence in the region.
"They have not been helpful in Iraq," Adm. William Fallon told the Senate
Armed Services Committee. "It seems to me that in the region, as they grow their
military capabilities, we're going to have to pay close attention to what they
do and what they may bring to the table."
The Bush administration has increased rhetorical, diplomatic, military and
economic pressure on Iran over the past few months, in response to Iran's
alleged deadly help for extremists fighting U.S. troops in Iraq and the
long-running dispute over Iran's nuclear program.
Bush said Tuesday the United States "will deal with it" if Iran escalates
military action inside Iraq and endangers American forces. But, in an interview
with ABC News, Bush emphasized this talk signals no intention of invading Iran
A day earlier, the president acknowledged skepticism concerning U.S.
intelligence about Iran, because Washington was wrong in accusing Iraq of
harboring weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. "I'm
like a lot of Americans that say, 'Well, if it wasn't right in Iraq, how do you
know it's right in Iran,'" the president said.
Washington accuses Iran of arming and training Shiite Muslim extremists in
Iraq. U.S. troops have responded by arresting Iranian diplomats in Iraq, and the
White House has said Bush signed an order allowing U.S. troops to kill or
capture Iranians inside Iraq.
The United States also accuses Iran of secretly developing atomic weapons ¡ª
an allegation Tehran denies. Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment lead
the U.N. Security Council to impose limited economic sanctions.
Senators including Hagel, George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Joseph R. Biden Jr.,
D-Del., sounded frustrated with the administration's decision not to engage Iran
and fellow outcast Syria in efforts to reduce sectarian violence in Iraq.
Negroponte, a career diplomat who is leaving a higher-ranked job as the
nation's top intelligence official, gave only a mild endorsement of the
administration's diplomatic hands-off policy toward Damascus and Tehran.
Negroponte would lead the department's Iraq policy if confirmed, as expected.
He said Syria is letting 40 to 75 foreign fighters cross its border into Iraq
each month and repeated the charge that Iran is providing lethal help to
insurgents fighting U.S. forces in Iraq. Iran and Syria are not helping promote
stability and peace in Iraq and understand what the United States and other
nation expect of them.
"I would never want to say never with respect to initiating a high-level
dialogue with either of these two countries, but that's the position, as I
understand it, at this time," Negroponte said.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to approve Negroponte
quickly for a job vacant since July.