Published January 30, 2007
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A plan by the Bush administration to release detailed and possibly damning specific evidence linking the Iranian government to efforts to destabilize Iraq have been put on hold, U.S. officials told FOX News.
Officials had said a "dossier" against Iran compiled by the U.S. likely would be made public at a press conference this week in Baghdad, and that the evidence would contain specifics including shipping documents, serial numbers, maps and other evidence which officials say would irrefutably link Iran to weapons shipments to Iraq.
Now, U.S. military officials say the decision to go public with the findings has been put on hold for several reasons, including concerns over the reaction from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — as well as inevitable follow-up questions that would be raised over what the U.S. should do about it.
U.S. reaction to continued Iranian meddling in Iraq also was the subject Tuesday of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing for John Negroponte, in line to become the nation's No. 2 diplomat.
During pointed questioning, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., told Negroponte, "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."
U.S. offiicals charge Iran is supplying explosives used to make the roadside bombs causing 70 percent of the deaths of U.S. troops and backing Shiite militias opposed to the Maliki government.
The United States also accuses Iran of secretly developing atomic weapons — an allegation Tehran denies. Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment lead the U.N. Security Council to impose limited economic sanctions.
One military official pointed to recent anti-Ahmadinejad comments coming from inside Iran — including from former President Mohammad Khatami who has urged a reduction in tensions with the United States — as an indication that Ahmadinejad may already be under growing domestic pressure. Given that, there is some feeling that now may not be the best time for the U.S. to be making a public case against the Iranian leader without risking an anti-U-S backlash.
Obama, a candidate for president in 2008, warned during the 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 intelligence questions still dogging the administation's decision to invade 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.
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.
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.
FOX News' Molly Henneberg and Nick Simeone and The Associated Press contributed to this story.