Just when you think the roiling relations between the US and Iran might be quieting down–they heat up again. In the last week, while two US aircraft-carrier strike forces continued to patrol the Persian Gulf (after "exercises" that took the carriers directly through the Straits of Hormuz and off Iran’s coast), American accusations against the Iranians have only escalated. Just as, last month, American officials continued to insist that the Iranians were supplying sophisticated roadside bombs to Iraqi insurgents (who are the enemies of their Shiite allies), so, this week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates "tied Iran’s government to large shipments of weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and said Wednesday such quantities were unlikely without Tehran’s knowledge."

Similarly, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told CNN: "[T]here’s irrefutable evidence the Iranians are now doing this." (Forget the fact that the Iranians have long been fierce enemies of the Taliban and that the Afghan Defense Minister dismissed such claims out of hand.) In Baghdad, General David Petraeus, head of President Bush’s surge operation, also lashed out at the Iranians. ("The Iranian influence has been very, very harmful to Iraq. There is absolutely no question that Iranians are funding, arming, training, and even in some cases, directing the activities of extremists and militia elements.") And three Iranian diplomats were briefly detained and questioned by the U.S. military.

For the Bush administration, it seems, Iran has become the explanation for everything that has gone wrong (even, last week, in the Gaza Strip), the equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire reduced to a regional scale. According to Brian Ross of ABC News, the CIA has already helped launch secret terror operations inside Iran and President Bush has signed a "non-lethal presidential finding" to "mount a covert ‘black’ operation to destabilize the Iranian government." In addition, the administration has been waging a complex, partly covert, "financial war" against Iran. ("The aim is to squeeze the Iranian economy so that the nation’s leaders will decide the price of developing nuclear weapons is just too high."); and it also has a $75 million fund at its command to "promote democracy" or a "velvet revolution" in that country.

In the meantime, Helene Cooper and David Sanger of the New York Times report that a struggle continues within the administration about whether or not to launch an air attack against Iranian nuclear facilities before President Bush leaves office. Vice President Cheney and his supporters, as well as beleaguered neocons now increasingly outside the government, continue to push for this, organizing conferences around the world — as reporter Jim Lobe wrote recently at his Lobelog blog–to brand Iran "Public Enemy Number One" and call for the Bush administration to strike now. ("Mr. President, the truth is that one of the most evil regimes in the world as we know it is on the verge of acquiring the most powerful weapon in the world as we know it.")

In the meantime, the Iranians, who previously captured (and then, with much fanfare, released) a boatload of British sailors, now seem to be rounding up and imprisoning any American citizen–in this case, four Iranian-American scholars and activists with dual nationality–who can be found in Iran and, in the last week, angrily linked their fate to that of five Iranian consular officials taken by American soldiers in a raid in Iraqi Kurdistan this January and held uncharged and largely incommunicado ever since. ("‘We will make the U.S. regret its repulsive illegal action against Iran’s consulate and its officials,’ state-run Mehr News quoted Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki as saying.") All this is happening in the context of a massive crackdown on intellectuals, activists, union leaders, and academics, a grim, fundamentalist "cultural revolution"–aimed in part at the Bush administration’s planning for that "Velvet revolution." According to the Washington Post’s Robin Wright, the result has been:

 

"arrests, interrogations, intimidation and harassment of thousands of Iranians as well as purges of academics and new censorship codes for the media. Hundreds of Iranians have been detained and interrogated, including a top Iranian official…. The move has quashed or forced underground many independent civil society groups, silenced protests over issues including women’s rights and pay rates, quelled academic debate, and sparked society-wide fear about several aspects of daily life."

 

In addition, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a key military advisor to Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that, within an hour of an American attack on the country’s nuclear facilities, the Iranians would be lobbing "dozens, maybe hundreds" of missiles into the Gulf states that host U.S. bases (and enormous oil reserves). "The U.S.," he said ominously, "will be as surprised with Iranian military capabilities as the Israelis were with Hezbollah in last summer’s war in Lebanon."

And this list only scratches the surface of the ever-widening set of disputes and face-offs between the two ill-matched powers. This dangerous dance of fundamentalist regimes remains one of the more potentially explosive situations on the planet, whether either side actually plans to attack the other or not. It involves heavily armed forces in at least three countries (and at sea), endless possible flashpoints, and riven administrations, shakily governing two hostile lands involved in ongoing conflicts in two other lands, Afghanistan and Iraq, themselves in bloody chaos. If that isn’t a formula for disaster, what is?

In the midst of this, at the moment, are those four American citizens, under arrest in Iran, labeled "detainees," and, tragically, pawns in a far larger struggle. In "Blowback, Detainee-style," Karen J. Greenberg, co-editor of The Torture Papers and executive director of the Center on Law and Security at NYU, points out that "detainee" is "the word the Bush administration coined to deal with suspected terrorist captives who, they argued, should be subjected to extra-legal treatment as part of the Global War on Terrorism. Now, that terminology is, as critics long predicted might happen, being turned against American citizens."

In demanding the release of the Americans, the Bush administration finds itself in a situation that gives the old phrase, "hoist by one’s own petard," new meaning. As Greenberg concludes: "Try as they might, Bush administration officials can only cry foul by calling attention to their own systematic violations of justice and the law. In their mouths, the appeal to fundamental rights rings hollow indeed, depriving Americans of the protections afforded by once-accepted standards of decency and justice."