US softens stance on Iran strikes
The United States is trying to reduce tensions with Iran by playing down the possibility of launching military strikes against the country's nuclear facilities, observers believe.
A series of public statements and Washington's decision to free nine of the 20 Iranians held captive in Iraq last week suggest that America is trying to send conciliatory signals.
The Bush administration is deeply divided over how to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, with Dick Cheney, the vice-president, believed to favour the military option.
Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, and Robert Gates, the defence secretary, are both thought to oppose Mr Cheney.
Instead, they advocate employing diplomatic and economic pressure to compel Iran to change course.
Significantly, service chiefs in the Pentagon are deeply sceptical of the military option.
Admiral William Fallon, the head of Central Command, which has responsibility for US forces in the Middle East, told the Financial Times that a strike was "not in the offing".
He added: "Getting Iranian behaviour to change and finding ways to do that is the real objective. Attacking them strikes me as being not the first choice."
If America did launch strikes at Iran's nuclear facilities, notably the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, Teheran would have numerous options for retaliation. It could fire missiles at Western targets in the Gulf states and sponsor attacks on US and British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hence any American attack would have to be a broad and lengthy campaign, designed to destroy Iran's ability to retaliate.
With US forces stretched thinly around the world, this would be a major undertaking.
Rosemary Hollis, the director of research at the foreign affairs think tank, Chatham House, said: "The real analysis made by the service chiefs says, 'no we do not want to go to war with Iran, but we must scare them'. We're being told that no one is going to choose to go to war with Iran, but that doesn't mean it can't happen."
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France presented a united front on the issue after meeting in Berlin. Mrs Merkel said: "We discussed how we and other European countries want to reduce our trade links with Iran."