iraq US troops 88.
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Iran presents a difficult balancing act for those in power in the US - and those seeking it.
For President George W. Bush, condemnation of Teheran's nuclear efforts must now be mixed with diplomacy. US and Iranian ambassadors plan to sit down Monday in Baghdad in a rare direct meeting to discuss stabilizing Iraq.
Nearly all the 2008 presidential hopefuls want to sound strong in confronting Teheran's growing nuclear capability, its support of militant groups and its hostility to Israel. Yet they want to do so without frightening a war-weary US public with new battle alerts.
One more US military entanglement in the Middle East is not on anyone's political wish list.
The maneuvering comes against a backdrop of rising tensions. The UN's nuclear watchdog agency last week accused Iran of accelerating its uranium enrichment program in defiance of international demands. President George W. Bush said he would work with allies to toughen penalties against Tehran. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pledged there would be retreat.
The US moved two aircraft carrier groups into the Persian Gulf in a show of force. Iran has detained several US citizens, including a 67-year-old Iranian-American scholar who was visiting her ailing 93-year-old mother.
In a new twist, Iranian officials said Saturday they had uncovered spy rings organized by the United States and its Western allies, claiming on state-run television that the espionage networks were made up of "infiltrating elements from the Iraqi occupiers." They did not elaborate, but said further details would be published soon.
In all, hardly an auspicious prelude to the Baghdad talks that were supposed to offer a late spring thaw after a 27-year freeze in formal US-Iran relations.
Iran is particularly difficult terrain for Democrats, who have made criticism of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq a centerpiece issue in the 2008 campaign and are advocating U.S. troop withdrawals.
"One of the problems with the position that the bulk of the party takes on Iraq is that it's very hard to be tough on Iran at the same time that you're dovish on Iraq," said Democratic consultant Doug Schoen, who did polling for President Bill Clinton.
"And considering that the Iranians are fomenting a lot of the terror in Iraq, it's sort of inconsistent to say we want to get out of Iraq but we want to be tougher against the Iranians. It's a conundrum. It's a challenge and I think it's one that's probably hurting the Democrats," Schoen said.
The Iran dilemma has led to some rhetorical backing and filling, both at the White House and on the campaign trail:
White House Press secretary Tony Snow, speaking of the upcoming talks, said it was "not unusual to have conversations of this sort." But direct contact has been rare since the 1979-80 hostage crisis. Snow said the possibility of granting Iran full diplomatic status would not be contemplated and never has been offered.
Vice President Dick Cheney issued blunt warnings to Iran during a recent trip to the region. He said the US would stand with allies to "keep the sea lanes open" while resisting Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions. How did that square with the upcoming diplomacy? "They're separate issues," Cheney insisted.
Sen. Barack Obama said "we must never take the military option off the table" for either Iran or North Korea. That brought criticism from the left. At the first Democratic debate, the first-term senator said a nuclear Iran would be a "major threat," but that it would be "a profound mistake for us to initiate a war with Iran."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested the United States needs to directly engage Iran's powerful clerics, calling Ahmadinejad "their front man, their puppet." Campaigning in Iowa late last month for the Democratic presidential nod, Clinton said, "If we ever have to use force against any country, it should be seen as an action of last resort, not first resort."
_Republican Sen. John McCain tried musical comedy. Campaigning in South Carolina, he responded to a question about military action against Iran by breaking into the melody of the Beach Boys song "Barbara Ann" but changing the lyrics to "Bomb Iran." His audience laughed; anti-war groups said the comment was dangerous and reckless.
All Democratic candidates favor negotiating directly with Iran. Most of the Republicans are wary.
Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd says direct talks should not be held with Ahmadinejad, whom he called a "thug." Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Iranian leader was a "madman" courting assassination by Shiite extremists.
Among Republicans, McCain proposes bolstering U.S. forces near Iran to discourage intervention in Iraq. Sen. Sam Brownback wants to help dissidents destabilize the Iranian leadership by spending $100 million (â‚¬74.4 million) a year for "democracy building, civil society building, and civil disobedience building."
To P.J. Crowley, an official at the National Security Council and the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, "Iran is the major winner from our invasion of Iraq."
Both Iran and Iraq "are very complex issues that are difficult for decision-makers regardless of political affiliation," said Crowley, now with the liberal Center for American Progress.
Complicating matters is the administration's past hard-line in refusing to talk to Iran, said David Mack, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs in the administration of the first President Bush.
U.S. allies in the region - including the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt - do not like or trust the Iranians, Mack said. "Yet they have been urging us to deal with them because they live in the real Middle East, where people who have business to conduct sit down across a table and argue about it," he said.