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The Big Question: Does the US intend to attack Iran, or is it only sabre-rattling?
Why has this question arisen now?
Precisely what does the US have against Iran?
There are so many issues it is hard to know where to begin. The most immediate US charges concern Iran's alleged support for Shia militants in Iraq. Washington claims that Iran is bank-rolling and arming them. The US also objects to what it sees as Iran's support for Hizbollah in Syria and Lebanon - whose strength Israel seriously underestimated when it invaded Lebanon last summer. Behind these accusations lies a greater concern: that Iran is emerging as chief beneficiary of the US failure in Iraq; and that the destabilising spread of its influence must be halted at any cost.
But there are other sources of hostility, too, aren't there?
Two other issues lurk in the background. The first, in which the US has recently been content to make common cause with the Europeans and the UN, is the fear that Iran is using a legitimate nuclear energy programme as cover for developing a nuclear weapon. The other is the deep resentment left over from the hostage crisis of 1979, when revolutionary guards stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 US citizens captive for 15 months. Despite occasional overtures from both sides since, diplomatic relations have still not been restored. The election in 2005 of the anti-Western populist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, frustrated hopes of any early reconciliation.
Has the US yet gone beyond rhetoric?
Yes and no. Aside from the rhetoric, it is moving two aircraft carrier groups to the Persian Gulf in a show of military strength. The planned injection of 21,000 more US troops into Iraq - the so-called "surge" strategy due to take effect in the next three months - is also seen by some as a preliminary to the use of Iraq as a base for strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, or even a more concerted assault. Others see the "surge" as directed against Iran's growing influence in Iraq. US officials partly confirm this, saying that they reserve the right to attack Iranian targets inside Iraq, but not beyond. This is what they are telling Britain and other European allies at present.
How has Iran responded?
Its priority, so far as can be judged, is not to seem to be capitulating in the face of US pressure. A rhetorician equal to anyone in the US administration, President Ahmadinejad has so far given no quarter. The Iranian response as a whole, however, has been more confusing. Iran has not made any overt retaliation for the arrest by US forces of five Iranians in Arbil, in northern Iraq. Last week, in an announcement that seemed to cock a snook at the US and the UN, an Iranian MP said Iran had taken delivery of 3,000 centrifuges for use in the enrichment of uranium. The head of Iran's nuclear energy agency, however, denied this, although there is no hint that Iran will meet UN demands for the suspension of its nuclear programme.