It is now clear that the US President George W. Bush has decided to confront Iran - politically, economically and militarily - rather than engage it in negotiations, as he was advised to do by James Baker and Lee Hamilton in their Iraq Study Group report.

Bush appears to have been influenced by pro-Israeli advisers such as Eliott Abrams, the man in charge of the Middle East at the National Security Council, and by arm-chair strategists at neoconservative think-tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, who have long clamoured for "regime change" in Tehran.

Although Washington's neocons have suffered some severe setbacks, notably because of the abysmal failure of their belligerent Iraqi strategy, they clearly continue to exercise considerable influence in the White House and in the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney.

On a recent visit to the Middle East, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to mobilise the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Egypt and Jordan, to join the US in confronting Iran.

Leading Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are, of course, concerned by the rise of Iran and of militant Shiism, but they are even more alarmed at the possibility of a US/Israeli war against Iran, which would inevitably inflict heavy blows on their own societies.

The declared aim of the United States is to "contain" Iran and reduce its influence throughout the Middle East. But the danger of such a policy is that it runs the risk of escalating from verbal assaults and sanctions to armed clashes and even to a war.

Some experts believe that if the US were to attack Iran, Iran might respond by firing missiles against US bases in Iraq and the Gulf, Hezbollah might attack Israel, and Israel might invade Syria, igniting a full-scale regional war with devastating consequences for all concerned.

Washington has long identified Iran as an adversary, part of Bush's famous - or infamous - "axis of evil". But, in the last few weeks, a decision appears to have been taken to get tough with the regime in Tehran which, in the words of Cheney, is said to pose a "multidimensional threat" to the United States and its allies.

The American view of these threats may be summarised as follows:

- Iran is challenging US hegemony in the Gulf region. It aims to expel the US military presence from the Gulf and substitute its own influence, backed by its revolutionary Islamic ideology.

--Iran's nuclear programme - plainly aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons - poses a threat to Israel and to America's Arab allies. Unless the programme is halted, it would limit the freedom of action in the region of both the US and Israel and overturn the regional balance of power in Iran's favour.

- By dominating the Straits of Hormuz, a hostile Iran would be in a position to interrupt the flow of Middle East oil to the industrial world.

- Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps have infiltrated into Iraq where they are training and arming Shiite militias to kill American troops and prevent the stabilisation of the country.

- By means of Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran is seeking to overthrow Lebanon's pro-Western Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the moderate Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, thereby extending Tehran's reach into Lebanese politics and into the arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

--In Latin America, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is teaming up with America's adversaries - Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia - in a common front against "American imperialism".

To counter this "multidimensional threat", the United States is adopting a multi-pronged strategy.

It is seeking to cripple Iran's banking system, as well as the financing of its external trade, by pressuring international banks not to deal with Iran. It has urged several major companies to stop trading with Iran.

It has moved two aircraft carriers - the Eisenhower and the Stennis - to within quick sailing distance of Iran to counter Iran's own missile capacity and naval power, and it has ordered Patriot missile defence systems to the GCC states. The US has also taken steps to prevent Iran from blocking oil shipments from the Gulf.

The US has arrested five Iranian consular officials at Irbil, about 350 kilometres north of Baghdad, accusing them of financing and arming Iraqi insurgents.

On January 10, Bush declared: "We will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."

The US is also planning to stiffen sanctions against Iran if it fails to suspend its uranium enrichment activities by early February, as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 1737 of December 23.

The US is angry with the Europeans for watering down the resolution in order to win the backing of Russia and China, to the extent that Iran can afford to ignore it. The US wants a far tougher UN resolution or, if that proves impossible, then a "coalition of the willing" to impose more severe sanctions on Iran.

These many moves have aroused fears in European capitals - and in the Arab world -that Bush has embarked on the road to war.

In a direct challenge to American policy, President Jacques Chirac of France has called for dialogue rather than confrontation with Iran - a policy which has been sharply criticised by Rice.

The situation is not unlike that of 2003, when France opposed the invasion of Iraq, triggering a severe diplomatic crisis between Paris and Washington.

Chirac is planning to send a high-level envoy to Tehran to urge the Iranian authorities to rein in Hezbollah, and thereby help defuse the dangerous situation in Lebanon, a country to which the French president is particularly attached.

He is planning to preside over a donors' conference in Paris on January 25 aimed at raising funds for Lebanon's reconstruction.

He is clearly anxious to prevent the regional crisis from undermining his attempts to put Lebanon back on its feet after Israel's assault last summer which smashed the country's infrastructure, killed some 1,300 people, and brought the economy to its knees.


Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.